About 80 Australians who were stranded in coronavirus-ravaged India after the Morrison government banned them from returning home have touched down in Darwin on the first post-ban repatriation flight.
More than 70 people due to fly were blocked in the final hours on Friday after 40 tested positive for Covid-19 with a further 30 also unable to fly because they were close contacts.
Anyone boarding had to have negative PCR and rapid antigen tests before they could board.
On Friday the number of people dying in India from the virus topped 4,000 for the third day in a row. The country has confirmed more than 24 million cases.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was working on Friday night to put other passengers on the flight but exactly how many made it onboard isn’t yet known.
Strict processes exist to prepare for the repatriation flights, including gathering at a hotel for a period.
The 26% positive rate is far higher than the 3.5% rate registered in passengers on the March repatriation flights.
The government-backed Qantas flight from Delhi to Darwin touched down shortly after 9am on Saturday. Passengers were due to be transferred to the Howard Springs quarantine facility.
Australia’s high commissioner to India Barry O’Farrell said he was disappointed those who tested positive would not be able to get on the flight.
“My team has worked hard across India to get them bookings on this flight because they are vulnerable,” he 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.
“Until such time that they test negative they won’t be able to fly on one of these facilitated flights.”
The flight from Australia to India on Friday to collect the Australians carried 1,056 ventilators, 60 oxygen concentrators and other essential supplies, adding to medical equipment sent last week.
Prime minister Scott Morrison said the controversial weeks-long pause in travel from India had worked.
Active cases of Covid-19 in hotel quarantine have dropped by more than 40% over the past few weeks.
In the Northern Territory, the number of active cases has fallen from 53 to six, including two US marines who tested positive in the past 24 hours.
“The system is ready to respond,” Morrison said.
“Had we not undertaken that pause then I think we would have put ourselves in a position where that (repatriations) just would not have been possible, not just for a couple of weeks, but months and months and months.
“But importantly we can now do it and do it safely and we can do it consistently and sustainably and I’m pleased we are going to be able to do that.”
The next government-facilitated flight from India is expected into Darwin on 23 May, bringing it to a total of 40 such flights since March 2020.