The federal government has announced that, from next week, anyone who tries to enter Australia from India could face up to five years in jail.
On Saturday morning, Health Minister Greg Hunt announced a "temporary pause" on travellers who have visited India within 14 days of their intended arrival date in Australia.
The penalty for failing to comply with the emergency determination under the Biosecurity Act, coming into effect at 12:01am Monday, could attract a $66,600 fine or the five-year jail term.
Around 9,000 Australians in India are currently registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as wanting to return home.
The Morrison government has already suspended direct flights from India, with the country's devastating coronavirus crisis continuing to spiral out of control.
“The risk assessment that informed the decision was based on the proportion of overseas travellers in quarantine in Australia who have acquired a COVID-19 infection in India,” Mr Hunt said in a statement.
The move, based on health advice and which followed Friday's national cabinet meeting, comes after two Australian cricketers in India slipped home by travelling through Qatar’s Doha Airport.
“The government does not make these decisions lightly. However, it is critical the integrity of the Australian public health and quarantine systems is protected and the number of COVID-19 cases in quarantine facilities is reduced to a manageable level,” Mr Hunt said.
The "temporary pause" has been put in place until 15 May, and the Chief Medical Officer will reconsider things at that stage.
Any change to allow travellers to start coming back will be based on the epidemiology in India, public health risk in Australia and quarantine capacity, Mr Hunt said.
Human Rights Watch was quick to slam the government’s "outrageous response" and said Australians have a right to return to their own country.
“The government should be looking for ways to safety quarantine Australians returning from India, instead of focusing their efforts on prison sentences and harsh punishments for people who are facing desperate conditions and simply trying to return home,” the group’s Australia director Elaine Pearson said in a statement on Saturday.
A number of state leaders are urging the federal government to invest in more purpose-built quarantine facilities, arguing the hotels being relied on are increasing public health risk because they are not designed to prevent infected people from passing on the virus to others in the same hotel.
Federal Labor MP Tanya Plibersek said the government should have set up proper quarantine facilities at the onset of the pandemic.
"The really frustrating thing about this is we are talking about this way too late," she told reporters on Saturday morning. "India is the most catastrophic example of that. Australians everywhere are desperate to get home and Scott Morrison has failed them."
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg conceded the move was “drastic” but said it would ultimately “keep Australians safe”.
India on Friday registered 386,452 new COVID-19 cases, yet another global record high for infections in a single day.
DFAT said on Saturday it is currently supporting 372 consular clients in India, three of which are COVID-19 related. SBS News has sought further information.
Around 20,000 Australians registered with DFAT have returned from India since March last year.
The government is sending oxygen supplies, ventilators and personal protective equipment to India through DFAT.
Additional reporting by Evan Young.