Arrivals from India are set to be cut further or flights suspended altogether by the federal cabinet’s national security committee when it meets on Tuesday.
It would be the second clampdown in less than a week on people coming from India, as the COVID crisis continues to escalate in that country, which on the latest figures is recording about 350,000 new cases a day.
Health Minister Greg Hunt on Monday said the national security committee would consider “whether the medical advice indicates that additional measures are required.
"And if those additional measures are recommended, we will take them with the heaviest of hearts but without any hesitation.”
Hunt said the meeting would also consider humanitarian support for India, including supplies of oxygen from the states.
“India is literally gasping for oxygen. And whilst we can assist with the national medical stockpile, their particular request is for […] the physical supply of oxygen.
"We are in a position to be able to supply non-invasive ventilators[…] We’ve reached out to the states who actually carry the supplies of oxygen,” he said.
The proportion of returnees from India among the COVID cases in quarantine rose sharply recently, prompting last week’s measures. A man who came back from India after getting married there was at the centre of the recent outbreak in Perth.
Last week national cabinet agreed to a 30% reduction in passenger numbers from India on government-facilitated flights during May, a delay of four of these flights from May to June, and a 30% cut in commercial flights direct from India.
But the worsening situation there and local pressure in Australia have forced a quick rethink.
Canada last week announced a ban on passenger flights from India and Pakistan.
Labor’s federal health spokesman Mark Butler said decisions “should be taken in accordance with public health advice”.
On Monday Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan announced the three-day lockdown ordered late last week would not be extended, although there will be transition restrictions.
In another round of the blame game McGowan – who has slashed the quota of overseas arrivals WA is willing to receive into quarantine – said at the weekend the states “have been shouldering all the load in hotels that were never built for this purpose now for 14 months.
"The simple reason the Commonwealth doesn’t want to do it is because it’s risk[…] and it’s work, and it’s hard.”
McGowan criticised the federal government for allowing too many people to travel overseas, and has also pressed for it to provide more quarantine facilities.
But Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said immigration detention centres and defence facilities were not fit for purpose for quarantine.
Andrews also pointed to the restrictions announced after national cabinet last week on travel to high risk countries.
NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian criticised McGowan, saying cutbacks in WA quarantine placed more pressure on her state.
Butler said there should be a national quarantine system. “This is clearly a Commonwealth responsibility,” he said.
“Our quarantine system is in a mess and Scott Morrison has got to stop pretending that it’s not his job to fix it,” Butler said.
Hunt said: “My view is we actually have the best quarantine system, or at the very least the equal of the best, of any in the world”.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra