SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australia on Tuesday suspended direct flights from India to prevent more virulent coronavirus variants entering the country following a surge in positive COVID-19 cases in the world’s second-most populous nation.
India’s coronavirus death toll neared the bleak milestone of 200,000 with another 2,771 fatalities reported on Tuesday, while its armed forces pledged urgent medical aid to help battle the staggering spike in infections.
The suspension of direct passenger flights between the two countries will remain until May 15, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a televised news conference.
“It is a humanitarian crisis and one gripping the world,” Morrison said.
“We don’t think the answer is to forsake those Australians in India and just shut them off,” he added, reiterating the suspension was temporary to ensure Australia could manage arrivals from virus hotspots.
Australia’s move impacts two passenger services from India into Sydney and two repatriating flights from India to Darwin, totalling around 500 arrivals.
Morrison said the suspension would provide a “breather” to quarantine facilities in New South Wales state and the Northern Territory, given the majority of positive cases there came from India.
Australia, which has all but stamped out the coronavirus from its shores, closed its borders to non-citizens and permanent residents in March 2020 to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
Returning residents and citizens have to undergo a mandatory two-week hotel quarantine at their own expense, a system that has largely helped Australia to keep its COVID-19 numbers relatively low, with just under 29,700 cases and 910 deaths.
The country reported zero new cases of community transmission on Tuesday.
Some state premiers had earlier voiced concerns about rising coronavirus cases in quarantine hotels, calling for a suspension on flights from India.
Western Australia, which on Monday emerged from a 3-day snap lockdown after reporting one local case last week, had been among the most vocal.
“India, there needs to be a suspension,” Premier Mark McGowan told reporters in Perth, ahead of the federal government’s decision.
“There is huge pressure now on all our quarantine facilities as a result of people coming from India.”
(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa and Stephen Coates)