LAURA TINGLE: I spoke to Immigration Minister Alex Hawke a short time ago. Minister, could we first go through the timeline about what happened on Friday? This was a decision taken, I understand, by the Federal Government, not by National Cabinet.
ALEX HAWKE: Well, yes, Laura. Obviously, the Prime Minister made an announcement about the suspension, temporary suspension of flights based on the latest medical advice, and we will lift the suspension as soon as practicable, and protecting Australia from any second wave that would be coming from travellers returning from India. This was based on the latest health advice that said that obviously our quarantine and seeing cases from India take up from about 10 per cent to about almost 60 per cent of cases in quarantine were coming from Indian returns, and therefore, we've taken a difficult decision to temporarily pause, of course, flights from India for two weeks.
LAURA TINGLE: Did you also take legal advice about doing this and about stranding Australian citizens? Because this is new.
ALEX HAWKE: Well, it is new in the sense that we had to make a pause in India. But obviously, throughout the whole pandemic, the Government's been taking health advice and advice from all our agencies. We've got border agencies; we’ve got legal agencies. I mean, it’s a very difficult and unusual time, the pandemic, so we have to take the totality of advice about every development in the pandemic. And what we see in India was a fantastic effort in the first wave where they really got through and did a great job, and then this development of this second wave with new and virulent strains of the virus, that has to be tackled. And we've all watched with horror the overwhelming sense that the Indian health system is under immense strain. Thousands of people are dying, and we're up to about 400,000 cases a day, so we have to continue to take advice. And what changed was that the health agencies rated for the first time a country in the high-risk zone. So India has been made a high risk country, which has implications for the Federal Government.
LAURA TINGLE: Sure. But the Prime Minister - that advice went to National Cabinet, but this decision was not announced till midnight on Friday night. Why - what was the timing of that? Was that related to flights leaving India or what?
ALEX HAWKE: Well, now the Government has to take a lot of advice. The Health Minister Greg Hunt addressed this when he said that he had to work through till about 11.50pm on that day. He obviously works 24 hours at the moment with his office wherever possible; they have to operate round the clock. A lot of health agencies in the world are doing that. They have to staff their offices and continually make these decisions. And as soon as he was able to sign off on the travel and transport arrangements, he was then able to announce it, and the reason for a late-night announcement is because that's when he finished his work. He’s committed to an immediate, transparent announcement about what has happened.
LAURA TINGLE: But what's Australia able to do for citizens stuck in India facing the risk of illness and death?
ALEX HAWKE: Well, this is the key consideration. So what we've decided is to pause it temporarily so that we can get our logistics under control. And with a new and virulent strain, with India being overrun with so many cases and so many people dying there, it's time, of course, to revisit our arrangements in quarantine. We've announced that we're expanding Howard Springs; that will go to 2000 capacity. There'll be 1000 more a fortnight being able to be taken there. And the logistics of charter flights to ensure that we have those new negative tests, we've announced you’ll need two separate negative tests to get on a plane. And the logistics that go with it meant that we had to have that pause to get these arrangements in place and to get them right to tackle a new and emerging situation.
LAURA TINGLE: Shouldn't that have been anticipated, though? I mean, there's been a lot of criticism of the hotel quarantine system and its capacity. People have been calling for an increase in Howard Springs for some time. Shouldn't this have been anticipated?
ALEX HAWKE: Look, I think things have changed throughout the whole 18 months that we’ve been through this now, near 18 months, and we've had many different considerations. And at times, we've had different hotel quarantine systems. Caps have been reduced or increased. We've learnt more about the virus as the year has progressed. There was times when it was or wasn't airborne or droplet-based. There was many different sets of advice. So we’ve adapted and changed our policy all the way through. And here again, India had done so well in the first wave. We're all dismayed to see what's happened in the second wave, and we have to change and adapt our advice. And what's important, Laura, is Australia continues to, not just protect its own position, which we have to for Australians because it has real implications for life here, but we're also good international citizens and we're sending millions of masks, thousands of ventilators. We're doing whatever we can for our Indian friends as well and as much as we're able to do. I think you'll see more support from Australia as this develops.
LAURA TINGLE: Well, how many Australians do you believe are stuck in India now who would like to get home?
ALEX HAWKE: Well, we have about 9000 that are on the register. We obviously will have to take more advice about that. And that is what the Prime Minister has asked myself as minister and Marise Payne as minister to do – that is consult with the Australian community. So this week, I have a further four or five roundtables to work out, make sure we're identifying vulnerable cohorts in India, people who have been caught up in this, everybody gets registered, and that we have the logistical systems in place to safely repatriate Australians back to Australia. And that's why we need a pause, and that's why we're doing it.
LAURA TINGLE: Well finally, according to Border Force, there are over 134,000 exemptions granted to let people leave Australia in the year to March. Do you think this will result in a change in that policy or a tightening of that policy in future?
ALEX HAWKE: Well, it may over time. There have been various reasons why you've been allowed to leave Australia. It has fluctuated. In the beginning, very few exemptions were granted because we had an outbreak in Victoria. Things were difficult then. As things became more positive, there were more exemptions, obviously, come on. And as we take further advice, we'll have to keep considering that around the world. And, you know, the Government is consistently adapting its policy to what's happening.
LAURA TINGLE: Minister, thanks for your time tonight.
ALEX HAWKE: Thanks, Laura.