(CNN) – The Australian government has been accused of racism after threatening five-year prison sentences for citizens violating a temporary travel ban between India and Australia.
“The government does not take these decisions lightly,” Hunt said in a statement. “However, it is crucial that the integrity of Australian public health and quarantine systems is protected and the number of Covid-19 cases in quarantine facilities is reduced to a manageable level.”
“We need to help Australians in India return, not close them,” he said. About 9,000 Australians in India are registered with the government as wanting to return to Australia.
“I can’t believe we would impose such a travel ban on white Australians fleeing, say, England,” he said.
“The need for such restrictions must be publicly justified. The government must show that these measures are not discriminatory and the only appropriate way to address the threat to public health,” the statement said.
Speaking on local radio on Monday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the decision was made “in the best interests of Australia’s health”.
He said the powers would be “used responsibly” to implement the arrival block from India to reduce pressure on hotel quarantine.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Sydney, Australia, on Tuesday, April 27.
Rick Rycroft / AP
At a news conference Sunday, Foreign Secretary Maris Payne denied the new measures were racist and said the ban was based on advice from Australia’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly.
However, in an interview with the Australian broadcasting corporation on Monday, Kelly said that “no advice has been given” on imposing fines and imprisonment.
“That’s exactly how the Biosafety Act works. If there’s a violation of what is seen as the use of emergency forces, then that turns out to be the case,” Kelly said.
Kelly added that he had told the government that something needed to be done about the number of positive cases received in the Australian hotel quarantine.
Foreign Minister Payne said on Sunday that 57% of coronavirus infections found in quarantine are currently from India.
Journalist Angus Watson contributed to this article.