- Prime Minister Scott Morrison appeared to soften the government’s stance on the harsh prison sentences and fines applicable to those who breach Australia’s new travel ban.
- “I think the likelihood of anything like that occurring is pretty much zero,” Morrison told “Today”.
- His statement comes as the travel ban, enacted in response to India’s COVID-19 crisis, was condemned by community groups, human rights organisations, and international sports stars.
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Prime Minister Scott Morrison says the chance of Australians being jailed or facing heavy fines after returning from India is “pretty much zero”, softening the government’s stance on its drastic travel ban after widespread condemnation from separated families, human rights groups, and international sports stars.
From Monday morning until at least May 15, anyone who has been in India within 14 days of their departure to Australia will not be permitted entry to the country.
The drastic measure was enacted in response to India’s unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, which led to 3,700 deaths and nearly 400,000 new confirmed cases on Sunday alone.
Under emergency provisions of the Biosecurity Act, breaching that ban is punishable by up to five years imprisonment, a $66,000 fine, or both.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt revealed the travel ban and its hefty punishments late on Friday, telling reporters those measures are “critical” to ensure “the integrity of the Australian public health and quarantine systems is protected”.
Yet the measures have been roundly condemned by the Indian-Australian community, who say families have been separated and citizens abandoned by the Australian Government during a horrific public health crisis.
Human rights groups have also lashed the ban, while Australian sports stars, like former Test cricketer Michael Slater, have used their platforms to demand change.
Taking to Twitter on Monday, Slater — who is attempting to return to Australia after conducting commentary duties in India — said the ban was a “disgrace”.
“Blood on your hands PM,” he added.
If our Government cared for the safety of Aussies they would allow us to get home. It's a disgrace!! Blood on your hands PM. How dare you treat us like this. How about you sort out quarantine system. I had government permission to work on the IPL but I now have government neglect
— Michael Slater (@mj_slats) May 3, 2021
Speaking to “Today” on Tuesday, Morrison appeared to distance the government from the harsher punishments provided by the act.
Penalties for breaching the travel ban will be meted out “responsibly and proportionately,” Morrison said.
“I don’t think it would be fair to suggest these penalties in their most extreme forms are likely to be placed anywhere,” the Prime Minister added.
Host Karl Stefanovic said the decision to effectively abandon Australian citizens during a health crisis was “incredibly heartless.”
“Well, Karl, as I have said, I think the likelihood of anything like that occurring is pretty much zero,” Morrison replied.
The Prime Minister’s statement does not represent a total retreat from the punishments prescribed by the Biosecurity Act.
Asked to clarify if Australians could face jail time for attempting to return home, Morrison said Border Force would handle arrivals “sensitively and within their authorities” but said he was “not going to tie their hands about how they do that.”
The Prime Minister reiterated that the two-week “pause” will allow infection rates to drop at the Commonwealth Government’s Howard Springs quarantine facility, which he said had experienced infection rates of 85% among returned travelers.
The need for a pause raises questions about the resilience of Australia’s quarantine systems, which, with its India travel ban, the Federal Government deemed incapable of sustaining an influx of returned travellers.
Broader concerns remain about the progress of Australia’s vaccine rollout, which lags far behind initial targets.