The first repatriation flight for Australians from COVID-ravaged India will reach home on Saturday with the up to 150 citizens and permanent residents heading for two weeks of quarantine in an old mining camp in the remote Northern Territory.
The flight will be the first after the lifting of a two-week ban on anyone coming from India, including Australian citizens, aimed at keeping out a fast-spreading variant of the novel coronavirus.
India has reported more than 300,000 daily coronavirus infections for the past three weeks, overwhelming its health system.
A military plane left Australia on Friday taking aid to India, a government source told Reuters. The plane will return with the stranded citizens, who must all test negative for COVID-19 before boarding.
The passengers will then head to the converted mining camp in Howard Springs for their quarantine, a Northern Territory health department spokeswoman said.
The government aims to more than the double capacity of the Howard Springs facility, 25 km southeast of the city of Darwin, to handle 2,000 people every two weeks from June.
There are about 9,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents in India hoping to get home.
Two more Royal Australian Air Force repatriation flights to the Northern Territory are scheduled this month, and authorities plan to repatriate about 1,000 people by the end of June. Vulnerable people will be given priority.
Australia closed its international borders in March 2020 to all but citizens and permanent residents. Most returning travellers, except those from New Zealand, have had to quarantine in hotels for two weeks at their own expense.
This system has largely helped Australia keep its COVID-19 numbers relatively low, with just over 29,950 cases and 910 deaths.
Anyone caught breaking the two-week ban on anyone coming from India could face jail. The ban, which ends on Saturday, drew criticism from some lawmakers, expatriate Indians and members of the public.