The number of Aussies still stuck in Covid-ravaged India has been revealed as the government is blasted for a quarantine system ‘built for tourists’.
Almost 11,000 Australians, including 209 minors, remain stranded in India as the country grapples with a devastating COVID-19 outbreak.
Appearing before a senate committee on Thursday, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials revealed 10,994 people were registered as wanting to return from India, including 1240 listed as vulnerable.
Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said a series of state lockdowns sparked by hotel quarantine breaches, including one under way in Victoria, was the result of the government’s failure to “take responsibility” for the issue.
She accused Foreign Minister Marise Payne of “self-congratulating” as Australians remained stranded overseas, and locked down at home.
“Another consequence is that we have more Australians stranded, as we get more virulent variants internationally, and the situation becomes more perilous,” she said.
Officials revealed three repatriation flights were due to depart from India by the end of the month, adding to eight that had already arrived.
Repatriation flights from India resumed in May after the governmenton Australians from returning the country at the height of its outbreak.
Ms Payne said since March 500,000 Australians had been returned, which she described as an “extensive undertaking”.
“That is not to detract from the challenges that families and communities have dealt with throughout this process,” she told Ms Wong.
“Your refusal to acknowledge the effort that has been put into this process by officials, by posts around the world is most unfair.”
It comes after National Covid-19 Co-ordination Commission Advisory Board commissioner Jane Halton criticised the federal government for failing to build additional commonwealth facilities to ramp up repatriation.
The May budget included plans to expand the NT’s Howard Springs facility, but Ms Halton, who released a review into the quarantine system in October, said she was “perplexed” the decision had taken so long.
“Some of the breaches we have seen recently are a direct reflection of an absence of best practice in some of these systems,” she told ABC Radio on Wednesday.
Ms Wong demanded to know why additional facilities had not been constructed eight months after Ms Halton’s review.
“Hotels are built for tourists,” she said.
Ms Payne said the Howard Springs expansion complemented state-run hotel quarantine systems, which took around 6000 people every week.
“That is an important component of what we are able to do,” she said.
The Foreign Minister insisted the government had also taken responsibility for returning Australians via Howard Springs.
“Tell that to the kids who are left over there, tell it to the people of Melbourne who are currently in lockdown because an inadequate quarantine facility has been used,” Ms Wong replied.
As of May 28, more than 35,000 Australians were registered as wanting to return from overseas, including 4260 vulnerable people.