The prime minister has attempted to downplay fears that Australian residents and citizens who try to return from India will face fines and jail terms.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he makes no apologies for the travel ban on people returning from India as pressure continues to mount over the government's hard-line stance.
It comes as the president of Australia's peak medical body has written to Mr Morrison and Health Minister Greg Hunt urging them to commit to repatriation of vulnerable Australians in India.
The government has faced widespread backlash over its decision to make it illegal for people stranded in India to return home until 15 May, as the India battles a catastrophic COVID-19 outbreak.
But Mr Morrison is refusing to back down from the temporary pause, which he says is needed to prepare Australia's quarantine program against the threat of infections entering Australia.
"The challenge we are facing here is not just the rampant spread of the pandemic in India, but it has been the accelerated rate of where we have seen infection of people coming from India," he told reporters on Tuesday.
"It is my responsibility to do everything I can to prevent a third wave in this country. I make no apologies for that."
The government's emergency declaration, permitted under the Biosecurity Act, states Australian citizens and residents could attract a $66,600 fine or a five-year jail term for breaching the suspension.
However, Mr Morrison has sought to downplay concerns over the decision to make it illegal for those stranded in India to return home amid backlash against the response.
"The sanctions are there. They exist. But they will be exercised proportionately and responsibly," he said.
"But they're imposed seriously because we need to prevent people coming who have been in India during the last 14 days because the risk of infection that they're bringing is very high."
The nation's quarantine system witnessed an increase in the proportion of COVID-cases of Indian origin last month to approximately 56 per cent, rising from around 12 per cent a month ago.
Mr Morrison said the travel suspension remains under constant review, but is needed to ease the pressure on the hotel quarantine system and allow pre-departure testing regime to be bolstered.
"If everybody cooperates, then we can get things in a stronger position and that means we can start those repatriation flights again," he said.
Australian Medical Association calls for urgent repatriation flights
AMA President Dr Omar Khorshid said the government must commit to repatriation flights as soon as the temporary pause on travel ends, and immediately reverse the decision to criminalise Australians returning.
“The pause in flights from India to Australia was warranted to manage the risk associated with large numbers of infectious people entering our fragile hotel quarantine system,” Dr Khorshid said.
“However, given the exponential growth in infections in India, expatriate Australians there now face a health risk that requires an Australian government health response."
Mr Khorshid said the deteriorating COVID-outbreak in India and risk of Australians being exposed to the illness means urgent action is required.
“We must be able to uplift vulnerable Australians from India when the current pause in flights is lifted," he said.
“Australians stranded in India need our support and the threat of fines and jail should not be hanging over their heads for wanting to come home."
Former Test cricket opener Michael Slater, who is attempting to return home from a commentary stint in India, earlier accused Mr Morrison of having blood on his hands over the controversial travel ban.
"If our government cared for the safety of Aussies they would allow us to get home. It's a disgrace!!" he tweeted.
"Blood on your hands PM. How dare you treat us like this."
Mr Morrison rejected the assertion, saying his government's response is about bringing Australians home safely.
"I don't agree with him. I thank all of those who are in this difficult situation for their patience and their understanding," he told reporters.
Mr Morrison earlier told Seven’s Sunrise it was unlikely anyone would be fined or jailed under the declaration.
“This is a measure which ensures we can keep Australia safe at this time,” he said, adding that the policy was enacted after one in eight people returning on recent repatriation flights tested positive for COVID-19.
“This was escalating quickly and we needed to take action to ensure we could get the [hotel quarantine] system back into a place within that fortnight so we could get those repatriation flights running again.”
Labor's leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, responded to Mr Morrison's comments on ABC Radio, asking: "If there's zero chance of these penalties being imposed, is the only reason you announced it to get a tough headline that’s now blowing up in your face?"
The government’s suspension of flights from India has been described as racist and draconian, with opponents pointing out similar bans were not introduced for the United Kingdom or the United States at the peak of their outbreaks. Legal experts have questioned whether it could be potentially discriminatory.
Pressed on why this is the case, Mr Morrison has claimed the infection rates of people returning to Australia from India were “much higher” than during other international waves.
He also reiterated that people who have travelled from India to a third country more than 14 days ago were entitled to come home to Australia.
Senator Wong said she understood why members of the Australian-Indian community "feel aggrieved" by the measures.
"We saw dreadful scenes in Europe, we saw dreadful scenes in the United States, United Kingdom, but we didn’t say the sort of rhetoric that we’ve seen [regarding India], nor the sort of announcement of pretty heavy-handed measures in relation to those nations," she said.
Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull also took to breakfast television on Tuesday to criticise the ban, telling ABC News the government had an obligation to make it safe for Australian citizens to return home.
He called for safer quarantine facilities, such as separate cabins or villas like those at the Howard Springs facility, to be used so there was no threat of the virus spreading through air-conditioning vents.
Mr Turnbull also said Mr Morrison should abandon completely the "appalling" threat to jail or fine those wishing to return.
"What he should do as quickly as possible is stop this ban and put in place the facilities to enable people to come back and be safely quarantined," he said.
"Those facilities exist and if they are not quite up to scratch, well I think people anxious to get home would be prepared to rough it for a few weeks as an alternative to staying in India."
Labor leader Anthony Albanese also criticised the government for not having a quarantine system already capable of returning Australians home from India.
"The Australian passport and Australian citizenship must mean something. And if it doesn’t mean that you have a right to come Australia, then what does it mean?" he told reporters.
"The government has to explain that and the reason why, the reason why there are issues with regard to bringing people back to Australia. This is a government that is not fulfilling its responsibilities to Australian citizens."
There are approximately 9,000 Australians in India who have registered interest in returning home, including 650 considered vulnerable.
India recorded more than 300,000 new COVID-19 cases for the 13th straight day on Tuesday, with its total tally surging past 20 million. The number of deaths rose by 3,449 for a toll of 222,408, health ministry data showed.