‘I didn’t advise anything in relation to fines’: Australia’s chief medical officer says brutal punishments for Australians returning from India were not his call

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  • Public health officials did not push for five-year prison terms and $66,000 fines for those who breach Australia’s new India travel ban, Chief Medical Officer Dr Paul Kelly said.
  • Federal Government officials said the brutal penalties were built on guidance from Australia’s health experts, who suggested severe measures to shield Australia from India’s COVID-19 disaster.
  • But on Monday, Dr Kelly told RN Breakfast he “didn’t advise anything in relation to fines or any of those other matters”, instead pointing to the government’s utilisation of the Biosecurity Act.
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Australia’s chief medical officer says he was not behind the Federal Government’s decision to penalise Australians returning from India with up to five years in prison or a $66,000 fine, despite government figures saying the drastic travel ban was enacted on public health advice.

From Monday morning, anyone who was in India within 14 days of their departure will be banned from entering Australia.

Health Minister Greg Hunt revealed the potential punishments late on Friday night, saying the overwhelming number of new COVID-19 cases sweeping India pose a risk to Australia’s embattled hotel quarantine system.

Hunt said the Federal Government would utilise “emergency determination” powers enshrined in the Biosecurity Act, which enable the government to enforce hefty prison sentences and fines for anyone who breaches the travel ban.

The ban will run until May 15 at the earliest, pending further public health advice.

The decision has faced heavy condemnation.

Human rights groups say the decision to ban Australian citizens from returning home violates human rights agreements and shows an “utter disregard and contempt” for those stranded in India.

Federal Opposition leader Anthony Albanese said the Federal Government must justify the “extraordinary” decision to threaten Australians with prison time for returning home, and questioned why India was targeted while similar bans were not instituted when new infections peaked in the US and UK.

But the Federal Government has defended its stringent policy, saying it is based on public health guidance.

On Saturday, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said “the medical advice provided to the federal government has been to put in place these strict measures.”

Foreign Minister Marise Payne echoed the same sentiments yesterday, saying the ban, and its attendant punishments, were “made under the Biosecurity Act on the basis of the advice of the Chief Medical Officer.”

Chief Medical Officer Dr Paul Kelly appeared to push back on those assertions Monday, confirming the decision to institute the ban was based on his department’s advice — but prison time and five-figure fines were not direct recommendations.

“In terms of the fines and so forth, they’re in the Biosecurity Act as offences under the Act, so there there was no advice given in relation to fines or jail terms, that’s just how the Biosecurity Act works,” Dr Kelly told RN Breakfast Monday morning.

“I didn’t advise anything in relation to fines or any of those other matters, that is the law,” Dr Kelly subsequently told ABC News Breakfast.

When pushed on the matter by News Breakfast host Madeleine Morris, Dr Kelly again pointed to Hunt’s discretion on potential penalties.

“The Act is very explicit that the minister must be satisfied by those things that I mentioned,” he said.

While distancing his department from the severe punishments in store for those found to have breached the ban, Dr Kelly defended the new decision to bar travellers from India but not those returning from America at the height of US infections.

India yesterday recorded its highest daily COVID-19 death toll, counting nearly 3,700 deaths from the virus.

The nation tallied a further 392,488 new cases over the 24-hour span, bringing the total figure to some 19.5 million confirmed cases.