SYDNEY (AFP) – The Prime Minister of Australia dismissed accusations of racism and blood on his hands Tuesday, May 4, as he stepped back from a prison threat for Australians trying to escape ravaged India by Covid.
Scott Morrison’s government has decided to ban travelers from India from entering Australia until May 15, threatening rule breakers – including Australian citizens – with jail terms.
Amid a widespread backlash, Mr Morrison said on Tuesday it was “highly unlikely” that Australians who circumvent a ban would be jailed.
“I think the likelihood of all of this happening is next to zero,” he said in a breakfast flash on Tuesday.
Around 9,000 Australians are believed to be in India, where hundreds of thousands of new coronavirus cases are detected every day and the death toll is skyrocketing.
Among those trapped are some of Australia’s most prominent sports stars – cricketers playing in the lucrative Indian Premier League.
Commentator and former Test cricketer star Michael Slater was among those who pilloried Morrison’s decision, saying it was a “disgrace”.
“Blood on your hands PM. How dare you treat us like this?” He tweeted. “If our government cared about the safety of Australians, it would allow us to return home.”
Mr Morrison said the idea of his having blood on his hands was “absurd”.
“The responsibility ends here when it comes to those decisions, and I’m going to make decisions that I believe will protect Australia from a third wave,” he said.
“I am working to get them home safely,” he added, indicating that repatriation flights could begin shortly after May 15.
The decision took effect Monday and has been denounced by rights groups and some of Mr Morrison’s most important allies, including Sky News commentator Andrew Bolt, who said it “stinks of racism”.
Australia has largely avoided the worst of the pandemic thanks to some of the world’s toughest border controls.
There is a general ban on travel to and from the country unless an exemption is obtained.
Non-residents are generally barred from entry, and anyone entering the country must undergo a mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine.
But that system is under increasing strain as the virus has rolled out of quarantine facilities and has caused a series of outbreaks in the largely unvaccinated community.
The Tory PM faces re-election over the next 12 months and had hoped Australia’s relatively successful handling of the pandemic would propel him to victory.
But India’s travel ban and the deployment of a glacial vaccine have drawn criticism.
Australia has administered 2.2 million doses of the vaccine to a population of 25 million people, who each need two doses to be fully immunized.