A Qantas repatriation flight bound for Australia from coronavirus-ravaged India could be half empty after 48 passengers tested positive.
The plane will be the first to touch down in Australia in several weeks after the federal government imposed a travel ban on flights to and from India, which has recorded more than 300,000 daily coronavirus infections over the past three weeks.
The flight is due to leave New Delhi on Friday night and scheduled to touch down in Darwin on Saturday morning after 9am, where passengers will be whisked away onto buses and transported to Howard Springs to undergo two weeks of quarantine.
The flight’s capacity has been reduced to 150 passengers due to social distancing but 72 will be unable to fly.
The figure includes 48 passengers who tested positive for COVID-19 and around 24 close contacts.
The first of 10,000 Australians stranded in coronavirus-ridden India (pictured) are expected to leave New Dehli on Friday night and arrive in Darwin on Saturday morning
It’s understood the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials are now scrambling to fill the flight with other stranded Australians desperate to get home, Nine News reported.
Stranded citizens and permanent residents must test negative for COVID-19 twice before getting the green light to board a flight home.
Among those booked on the flight were Melbourne man Sunny and his elderly mother, who have been stuck in India for the last 12 months.
The pair will be unable to board the flight after Sunny tested positive.
‘We just want to know what is going on,’ he told the ABC on Friday.
‘If I die, the Australian government will be responsible.’
Australia’s High Commissioner to India Barry O’Farrell is disappointed for those Australians who will be unable to board
‘My team has worked hard across India to get them bookings on this flight because they are vulnerable,’ Mr O’Farrell told the ABC.
‘Regrettably those people will have to return home and deal with the COVID that they have, or continue to isolate to prove that they don’t have COVID.’
A Qantas plane will bring home the first group of Australians currently stranded in India (stock image)
Mr O’Farrell added infected passengers and their family members would still be considered vulnerable and be given priority on future flights once they test negative.
Around 10,000 Australians, permanent residents and immediate family members remain stranded in India, desperate to remain home.
Around 1,000 of those stranded are identified as ‘vulnerable.’
A Qantas plane departed Darwin International Airport in the early on Friday afternoon, with just 12 hours to go before the federal government travel ban expires.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison stands by the government’s travel ban, claiming the controversial weeks-long ‘pause’ had worked.
‘The pause gave our quarantine system much-needed breathing space to minimise the risk of COVID-19 getting out of quarantine into the community and having a third wave here,’ Mr Morrison said.
‘It’s all about keeping Australians safe and ensuring we can keep living the way we are in Australia, which is like few other countries in the world today.’
NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner confirmed on Friday the Howards Springs facility will be able to accommodate 2,000 quarantining people a fortnight by the end of June.
‘We’re expected 450 from India over the rest of May as well as 600 from London and Istanbul,’ he told Seven Network.
Three repatriation flights are expected to land in Darwin from India during May and early June (pictured, other passengers arriving there in October)
Mr Gunner said there was a lot of compassion in Darwin for the Australians and residents trying to get home.
The NT took in the first returning Australians in February last year from Wuhan, China, which was then the global epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak.
There have never been any breaches at the facility.
‘No complacency,’ Mr Gunner said, ‘but we’ve set ourselves a challenge to always get better’.
On Thursday, the NT government warned the Covid-19 infection rate among those returning from India could be in the double digits.
About 200 repatriated Australians are expected to start their two weeks of quarantine at Howard Springs in the coming week.
Australian citizens and permanent residents will spend two weeks at the Howard Springs quarantine facility (pictured)
They will be some of the most vulnerable cases among the 9,000 stranded in the Covid-ravaged sub-continent, which is racking up an average of 300,000 new infections a day.
NT health officials are preparing for 10 per cent of the passengers on Saturday’s flight to be infected – five times more than repatriation flights from other countries.
Three flights are expected to land in Darwin from India during May and early June.
That will push Howard Springs’ population to about 1,200 people and on track to 2,000 by the end of June
The facility can handle about 100 positive cases, but AUSMAT and NT Health teams hope to keep that number at 50.
About 490 people are quarantining at Howard Springs, where the number of people with coronavirus has fallen to five from more than 50 two weeks ago.
About 200 repatriated Australians are expected to start two weeks’ quarantine at Darwin’s Howard Springs facility once the travel ban is lifted on May 15 (pictured, Scott Morrison at the facility in April)