Scott Morrison claims it is ‘highly unlikely’ Australians returning from India will be jailed under biosecurity laws | Scott Morrison

Scott Morrison claims it is “highly unlikely” that anyone will be jailed for returning to Australia from India under the country’s harsh biosecurity laws, as he resists calls from the peak medical association for the penalties to be dropped.

Facing a backlash from within Coalition ranks and mounting community anger over the government’s decision to criminalise returning to Australia from Covid-ravaged India, the prime minister on Tuesday was forced to walk back the threat, describing it as a “tool” that was available to Australian Border Force if needed.

“I think the likelihood of anything like that occurring is pretty much zero,” Morrison said. “It’s highly unlikely … The sanctions are there, they exist, but they will be exercised proportionately and responsibly.”

He said the sanctions had been in the Biosecurity Act for the past 14 months, and no one had been penalised using the “extremes” of the available penalties, which include a fine of up to $66,000 and five years’ jail, or both.

But while insisting the penalty was unlikely to ever be used, Morrison still defended the government’s position, saying he made “no apologies” for the hardline decision made in response to a rising number of infections in the state and federal quarantine systems that had come from passengers travelling from India.

“This is a decision that has been taken both in the interests of keeping Australians safe now but also to put us in a stronger position to safely bring more Australians home,” Morrison said.

“I respectfully disagree with the critics on this one, but the buck stops here when it comes to these decisions and I am going to take decisions that I believe will protect Australia from a third wave, and help me to be able to reach out and bring more Australians safely home from places where they are in difficult situations.”

The government has faced a torrent of criticism as a result of the India travel ban, including from Australian cricketers in India who have accused Morrison of having “blood on his hands”.

Government MPs are also concerned about the “extreme” and “heavy-handed” move, hoping that a meeting of the national security committee of cabinet this week may provide a resolution.

The Australian Medical Association president, Dr Omar Khorshid, wrote to Morrison and the health minister, Greg Hunt, on Tuesday, urging the government to scrap the harsh penalties and to commit to the repatriation of vulnerable Australians in India at the end of the current travel ban on 15 May.

“The order to imprison or fine those who might breach the current ban is seen by the medical profession as mean-spirited at a time when Australia should in fact be aiding India by bringing Australians home in order to avoid further burden on their collapsing health system,” Khorshid said.

“Australians stranded in India need our support and the threat of fines and jail should not be hanging over their heads for wanting to come home.”

The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said the opposition supported the travel ban on commercial flights from India, but said the government needed to restart charter flights to repatriate Australians in India as soon as possible.

“The government needs to put in place mechanisms so that they can get Australians home,” Albanese said. “This government has done nothing to put in place those measures. What they have done is threaten people and then withdraw the threat and say, ‘It was just a bit of rhetoric and we don’t think there is any chance of it being implemented’.”

Australia’s chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, has warned that Australians could die from Covid-19 as a result of the travel ban, but has recommended the “pause” in flights because of the limits of the country’s quarantine system.

Morrison confirmed on Tuesday that the government was currently assessing a proposal from the Victorian Labor government to co-fund a new dedicated quarantine facility which would cost between $200m and $700m.

“I welcome the proposal,” Morrison said. “It is a very detailed and comprehensive proposal.”

He also said the government was already doing the “heavy lifting” on quarantine, pointing to the expanded Howard Springs quarantine facility in the Northern Territory, which will house up to 2,000 returned travellers from India once repatriation flights resume.

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