Passengers miss India-Australia flight because of COVID-19

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Around half the passengers due to arrive on a flight from India to Australia on Saturday after a two-week travel ban have been grounded because they either have COVID-19 or are considered a close contact of someone who does.

The Australian government-chartered Qantas flight is capable of flying home 150 Australian citizens and permanent residents stranded in India. It will be the first passenger flight between the two countries since Australia imposed a travel ban on April 30.

Australian High Commissioner to India Barry O’Farrell said “a number” of passengers booked to fly would not board the flight in New Delhi on Friday because they had tested positive for COVID-19.

The flight will land on Saturday in the northern Australian city of Darwin from where the passengers will be taken to a remote quarantine camp.

“I’m disappointed, as are those Australians who will not be on today’s flight,” O’Farrell told Australian Broadcasting Corp. “My team across India has worked hard to assist them, to get bookings on this flight, because they are vulnerable.”

There are 10,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents registered with Australian authorities in India as wanting to come home. Almost 1,000 were classified as vulnerable and the Australian government was giving them priority.

Australian citizen Sunny Joura said he and his elderly mother had been prevented from flying home last month by Australia’s travel ban. Now he had been prevented from returning Saturday because he had contracted COVID-19. He did not know yet know the result of his mother’ test.

“I was able to return, but I was not able to return because of the Australian government,” Joura said. “If I die, the Australian government will be responsible.”

More than 40 of the passengers booked on the first flight out tested positive for the virus and around 30 had been rejected because they were considered close contacts, said an Australian official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

Nine Network News reported that 48 had tested positive and 24 would be left behind because they were considered close contacts.

O’Farrell said the empty seats could not be filled because of the strict health checks that Australia is imposing.

“We’re in the middle of a COVID crisis here in India and it takes at least 24 hours if not longer to get the results of a test,” O’Farrell told Nine.

O’Farrell said the rejected passengers would be eligible for future flights once they get health clearances.

The Australian government plans to fly the next repatriation flight on May 23. Six government-chartered flights, each with a 150-passenger capacity, are expected to return Australians from India before the end of May.

Australia doesn’t expect scheduled international flights to return to normal until mid-2022.