Australia’s top medical officer has revealed he did not advise the government to threaten Australians trying to dodge the Indian travel ban with jail.
The Morrison government has copped strident criticism from doctors, human rights groups and the Indian-Australian community over the punitive measures.
While senior government ministers have pointed to health advice as to the basis of the decision, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said the powers already existed.
“There was no advice given in relation to the fines or jail terms, that’s just how the Biosecurity Act works,” he told ABC radio on Monday.
“Our advice that we needed to do something about the number of positive cases coming into our hotel quarantine because of the risk of incursions.”
Cabinet minister Alan Tudge said the pause in flights was a temporary measure that would be reviewed on May 15.
While he claimed the issue was from returning Indians, there are more than 9000 Australian citizens who want to return with 650 considered vulnerable.
“We are giving those quarantine systems a breather so that they we can have surety that they will be safe and infections won’t spread throughout the Australian community,” Tudge told the Nine Network.
Australian Medical Association WA president Andrew Miller said similar measures were not in place for people in Europe or the UK during serious coronavirus outbreaks.
Miller said it would be viewed as a dark period in the nation’s history.
“It’s not Australian to trap people overseas,” he told Nine.
“To suggest that a particular segment of the community should get fined for this is absolutely unacceptable and outrageous.”
He apologised to Indian Australians that he wasn’t able to do more to stop the imprisonment and fine powers being used.
Yadu Singh, a Sydney cardiologist and president of the Federation of Indian Associations of NSW, said the government had a moral obligation to help its citizens.
“There is a panic. There is a worry because coronavirus is a big, big problem in India and these people are stranded,” he told ABC radio.
India is recording about 400,000 new coronavirus cases each day but the real number of people contracting it is believed to be higher.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne rejected suggestions blocking travellers from the Asian nation was racist.
The Australian Human Rights Commission wants the government to prove that its decision to fine or jail Australians is not discriminatory.