Scott Morrison is refusing to back down from the India travel ban despite a torrent of criticism from high-profile figures and within conservative ranks.
The government is downplaying a threat to jail or fine people who dodge the flight pause, which is in place until at least May 15 because of India’s coronavirus catastrophe.
Former Test cricket opener Michael Slater, who is attempting to return home from a commentary stint in India, said the prime minister had blood on his hands over the decision.
While Mr Morrison labelled the accusation absurd on breakfast TV, he tempered his language at a news conference.
“I respectfully disagree with the critics on this one,” he told reporters in Mackay on Tuesday.
“But the buck stops here when it comes to these decisions. I am going to take decisions that I believe will protect Australia from a third wave.”
The prime minister said the rapid escalation of cases arriving from India put enormous pressure on the quarantine regime but denied it showed the system’s weakness.
Mr Morrison has committed to continually review the travel pause.
India recorded more than 300,000 new cases for a 12th straight day but medical experts warn the real number could be up to 10 times higher.
The government is backing away from a threat to jail or fine people who dodge the travel ban.
“The likelihood of any sanction, anything like that is extremely remote,” Mr Morrison told the Nine Network.
Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong questioned why the government announced the punitive measures if there was no intention of using them.
“Is the only reason you announced it to get a tough headline that’s now blown up in your face? That’s not a way to handle this global pandemic,” she told ABC radio.
Nationals senator Matt Canavan fears Australia is falling into a trap of pursuing perfection in coronavirus management at the expense of other obligations.
“I don’t like this precedent that we’re locking Australians out of their own country,” he told Sky News.
The outspoken Queenslander said the government chartered flights from Wuhan at the onset of the pandemic to bring citizens home but was now refusing to help Australians.
Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said threats of jailing or fining people were appalling.
“Australians must always have the right to come home,” he told the ABC.
“That is one of the rights of being an Australian citizen. I have been shocked that has been effectively abrogated in this instance.”
There are about 9000 Australians in India who want to return home with 650 considered vulnerable.
The Australian Medical Association is urging the government to drop the threat of jail and fines, while also committing to bring the vulnerable cohort home as soon as the flight pause is lifted.
Conservative commentator Andrew Bolt said he was ashamed of Australia over the decision, which he believes “stinks of racism”.
The government imposed the ban on advice from Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly, who warned Australians could die in India during the pause.