Australian COVID-19 travel restrictions challenged in court

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia’s drastic COVID-19 strategies of preventing its citizens leaving the country and returning from India were challenged in court Thursday.

The government is resisting growing pressure to lift the Indian travel ban imposed last week until May 15 to reduce infections in Australian quarantine facilities.

A challenge to the ban by Gary Newman, one of 9,000 Australians prevented from returning home from India, will be heard by a Federal Court judge on Monday, Chief Justice James Allsop said.

The ban was made by order of Health Minister Greg Hunt under the Biosecurity Act which carries penalties for breaches of up to five years in prison and fines of up to 66,000 Australian dollars ($51,000).

A libertarian group LibertyWorks took its case to the full bench of the Federal Court on Thursday against a separate order under the Biosecurity Act that has prevented most Australians from leaving the country without compelling reasons since March last year.

The government hopes to maintain Australia’s relatively low levels of community transmission of the virus by preventing its citizens from becoming infected overseas and bringing variants home. Travel to and from New Zealand has recently been exempted.

LibertyWorks argues that Hunt does not have the power to legally enforce the ban, which has prevented thousands of Australians from attending weddings and funerals, caring for dying relatives and meeting newborn babies.

With almost one third of Australians born overseas and most barred from leaving the country for more than a year, a win by LibertyWorks is likely to lead to a surge in citizens wishing to travel internationally. The three judges hearing the case will likely announce their verdicts at a later date.

The challenge to the Indian travel ban will be heard by Justice Michael Thawley five days before flights could potentially resume.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the pause was working in reducing infection rates among returned travelers within Australian quarantine facilities.

“The early evidence indicates that that temporary pause to May 15 is on track and that we are very hopeful and confident that on the other side of May 15 we’ll be able to start restoring those repatriation flights,” Morrison said.

A decision would be made before May 15, but Morrison could not say how long before that date that a decision would be announced. Around 20,000 Australians had been repatriated from India before the travel ban.

Newman’s lawyer Christopher Ward told a preliminary hearing on Thursday that the legal team wanted a verdict before May 15.

Newman’s lawyers argue that it is important that the minister’s power was reviewed by the court even if the travel ban was not extended.

The court cases were heard in Sydney where new pandemic restrictions were imposed on Wednesday due to two recent cases of community infections.

Masks have become compulsory in the greater Sydney area in all public indoor venues and on public transport from late Thursday and visitors to homes in Australia’s largest city have been capped at 20.

The measures follow a Sydney man on Wednesday becoming New South Wales state’s first case of COVID-19 community transmission in a month. The man’s wife on Thursday was confirmed as also being infected.

Authorities have yet to determine how the couple became infected with the same variant as a traveler from the United States had been diagnosed while in Sydney hotel quarantine.

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