CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The Australian government on Wednesday faced a court challenge to its temporary Indian travel ban brought by a 73-year-old citizen stranded in the city of Bengaluru.
The government is resisting growing pressure to lift the travel ban imposed last week until May 15 to reduce COVID-19 infection rates in Australian quarantine facilities.
Lawyers for Gary Newman, one of 9,000 Australians prevented from returning home from India, made an urgent application to the Federal Court in Sydney on Wednesday for a judge to review the travel ban imposed under the Biosecurity Act by Health Minister Greg Hunt.
Lawyer Christopher Ward told the court one of the grounds was related to questions of proportionality and reasonableness. Two grounds were based on statutory interpretation and a fourth questioned the ban’s constitutionality.
Justice Stephen Burley said an expedited hearing date would be announced within 48 hours.
Hunt announced late Friday that anyone who sets foot in Australia during the travel ban within 14 days of visiting India faces up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 66,000 Australian dollars ($51,000).
The Australian Medical Association this week called on Hunt and Prime Minister Scott Morrison to withdraw the order, which the nation’s top doctors’ group condemned as “overreach.”
Some critics have accused the government of racism because such drastic travel restrictions were not introduced when infection rates were rapidly increasing in the United States and Europe.
Morrison said he was not concerned that the travel disruption might damage relations with India, which he described as “a great friend of Australia.”
“This pause is enabling us to get on the right footing to be able to restore those repatriation flights and we’re making good progress to do that,” Morrison said.
“Had we not done the pause, we would have been eroding our capability to do that over the medium-to-longer term,” he added.
Critics of the travel ban include former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson as well as several Australian lawmakers and Indian community leaders.
India is in the grip of a devastating surge that has overwhelmed hospitals struggling to secure oxygen supplies.
A chartered Qantas flight had departed Sydney carrying medical supplies to India including 1,056 ventilators and 43 oxygen concentrators, the Australian government said in a statement.
The donated supplies will be distributed by the Indian Red Cross and local authorities to ensure support reaches those in greatest need, the government said.
Australia has used its geographic isolation as an island nation to its advantage in fighting the pandemic. It has been among the most successful countries in preventing the virus’s spread in the community.
But a libertarian group will challenge in the Federal Court on Thursday Australia’s tight restrictions on its citizens leaving the country for fear that they would bring the virus home.
LibertyWorks will argue that Hunt does not have the power under the Biosecurity Act to ban most Australians from leaving the country.