The Morrison government is battling a significant backlash within its own ranks over the controversial decision to criminalise returning to Australia from Covid-ravaged India, with Coalition MPs characterising the move as “extreme” and “heavy-handed”.
Fiona Martin, the Liberal member for Reid, a Sydney electorate with a substantial Indian community, told Guardian Australia the travel ban and related legal penalties were “quite heavy-handed”.
“There are a lot of Australians stuck in India that we should be bringing home as a priority,” Martin said, adding it was her “hope” that repatriation flights would begin “as soon as possible”.
The Liberal MP Dave Sharma also raised concerns.
“There is little doubt this is an extreme measure and that it is causing significant hardship to the Australian Indian community,” he said.
“It can only be justified on the basis of the unprecedented outbreak in India underway and the significantly heightened risk which this poses. I fully expect these restrictions will only be temporary and that enhanced powers will be used only sparingly and as a last resort.”
The Sydney-based member for Berowra, Julian Leeser, confirmed he had been speaking to community leaders over the weekend and had conveyed their concerns “to a range of ministers”.
The Queensland National senator Matt Canavan told the ABC the decision was “wrong” because “we have an obligation to help Australians”. The Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells said: “I am concerned about this decision and most especially regarding the precedent it sets for making it illegal for Australians to return home to Australia.”
While declining to speak on the record, a number of other Coalition MPs also confirmed they had raised concerns with ministers about both the decision to criminalise returning from India and the lack of internal consultation before the move was confirmed on the weekend.
The decision to fine or jail Australians returning from India went to the national security committee of cabinet but, sources say, not to the whole cabinet and not to the government party room.
One member of the government told Guardian Australia the biosecurity powers invoked at the start of the pandemic to manage the public health crisis – the same powers underpinning the controversial India determination – were “an insane level of power for a single minister to wield”.
Another MP characterised the episode as a “disaster”. Yet another said the travel ban meant the Coalition would now have to manage a significant “perception problem with the Indian community”.
The decision to criminalise returns to Australia emerged first as an option under consideration last Friday evening and was then confirmed in a media release issued by the health minister, Greg Hunt, after midnight.
The government said it made the decision in response to advice from Australia’s chief medical officer. On Monday, the government tabled that advice from Prof Paul Kelly.
Kelly warned the government that citizens stranded in India faced the prospect of serious illness without healthcare and a “worst-case scenario” of death from Covid under the controversial ban on travel to Australia.
But given Australia’s “limited” quarantine facilities, Kelly recommended the government go ahead with its decision to suspend arrivals from India until 15 May, noting it would be the first time that such a determination had been used to prevent Australian citizens and permanent residents entering Australia.
The government insists its determination is lawful but experts say it is open to legal challenge. The move has also been criticised by the Australian Human Rights Commission.
The government’s national security committee of cabinet will review the controversial decision this week with national cabinet to consider any possible changes on Friday.
But while MPs are urging the government to organise urgent repatriation flights, Guardian Australia understands flights from India will not resume until the current infection numbers at the NT-based Howard Springs quarantine facility fall to single figures. There are currently 41 people in the facility who have tested positive to Covid, down from 53 a week earlier.
On the most recent repatriation flight from India before arrivals were banned, one in every eight passengers was infected, bringing the infection rate at Howard Springs to 13%, compared with 0.55% in hotel quarantine.
State and territories have agreed to a safe “positivity rate” of 2%.
Howard Springs, which currently has a capacity of 900 people, is being expanded to take up to 2,000 people, with the government hopeful the extra capacity can be used for the repatriation of people from India by mid-May.