Australia suspends flights from PNG as COVID-19 support announced

 Australia will send thousands of COVID-19 vaccine doses and millions of personal protective equipment (PPE) items to Papua New Guinea as the country struggles to contain a surging outbreak of the virus. 

Australia Supporting Papua New Guinea’s COVID-19 Response Photo by Zed Seselja

Prime Minister Scott Morrison today announced all charter and passenger flights would be suspended between Papua New Guinea and Australia, as medical professionals warn coronavirus is running rampant in the country. 

“Starting at midnight tonight, we will further reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission from Papua New Guinea to Australia by suspending passenger flights from Papua New Guinea into Cairns,” he said. 

“We'll be suspending all outbound travel exemptions by Australians to Papua New Guinea, except for essential and critical workers, including humanitarian and medevac-related activity. 

“This will include no general FIFO work. If you're there, you stay. If you're here, you stay.

“We cannot risk people going into those areas and back to Australia.” 

Freight will continue and the Australian Government will reassess the country's coronavirus situation in the next fortnight. 

It comes amid fears passengers from Papua New Guinea could bring a new wave of COVID-19 to Queensland after a number of returning travellers tested positive. 

In Papua New Guinea, from 03 January to 16 March there have been 2351 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 26 deaths reported to the World Health Organisation - but there are concerns low testing numbers could be concealing the full extent of the outbreak. 

Australia will send 8000 COVID-19 vaccines from its stockpile to Papua New Guinea, so the country can urgently vaccinate health workers amid the growing outbreak. 

Morrison said Australia would also be working to procure another million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to be used in Papua New Guinea. 

“They're our friends, they're our neighbours, they're our partners,” he said. 

“They have always stood with us and we will always stand with them.” 

Australia will also send a million surgical masks, 200,000 respirator masks, 100,000 gowns, and 100,000 goggles, 100,000 pairs of gloves, 100,000 bottles of sanitiser, 20,000 face shields and 200 non-invasive ventilators to the country. 

Morrison said he would be willing to divert some of Australia's domestically produced vaccines to Papua New Guinea, if Europe refused to do so. 

Doses of Australian-purchased AstraZeneca vaccine have been held up in Europe by countries who want the supply for themselves. 

“I expect and would hope to get the cooperation out of Europe for this,” Morrison said. 

“This is not Australia seeking to do this for our own direct benefit, although we've contracted them and you would expect them to be supplied.” 

But when CSL begins producing the AstraZeneca vaccine in Melbourne, Morrison said doses could be sent to Papua New Guinea.

“I don't think Australians have a problem with that,” he said. 

“I think when we're talking about our own home, which PNG is part of, our own family, our Pacific neighbours, I think Australians understand that that is one of our responsibilities and as an advanced nation that has had such incredible success in managing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, I think they would be generous in spirit.” 

Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said helping Papua New Guinea was not only the right thing to do, but it was in Australia's interest. 

“Over the last couple of weeks, very rapidly the situation has changed in Papua New Guinea,” Professor Kelly said. 

“Of the cases diagnosed in PNG, half of them have been diagnosed in the past couple of weeks. 

“Half of women who are coming in due to pregnancy are positive.” 

The vaccine doses and supplies Australia is sending north is being done in partnership with the Papua New Guinean government, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said. 

“The AUSMAT team will be in country on Monday next week, we expect will also do the ground work for the clinical response team, which will follow then," she said. 

“We are also providing Papua New Guinea, through the vaccine programme, we have announced $144 million (US$111 million) to support their PNG vaccine program and its rollout.” 

Senator Payne said the Australian Government was supplying hospital tent facilities outside the general hospital in Port Moresby for the safe triaging, referral and transfer of patients. 

“We're working with the WHO on expanding warehouse capacity so we have storage facilities for PPE and we can streamline its distribution,” she said. 

Australia is also assisting to transform an aquatic centre in Port Moresby into an isolation facility for mild and moderate cases. 

The “treaty villages” in Papua New Guinea with direct access to Australia's Torres Strait islands would also be a particular focus for containing the outbreak. 

Morrison said the government needed to protect Australia's borders. 

“I think the forward deployment of vaccinations, particularly into the treaty villages, a key point of interaction, I think, will be a very achievable and very practical way of addressing that immediate need,” he said.

 Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk Tuesday confirmed more than 50 per cent of the state's cases in hotel quarantine originated in PNG.

 Since 15 March, there have been 32 cases from PNG imported into Queensland and 13 are currently being managed in the state's hospitals.

 Palaszczuk said she had been in talks with the Prime Minister over what could be done to assist the nation.

 “We know there are an increasing number of cases in Papua New Guinea at the moment, and any additional support that the federal government can give, whether it's vaccinating health care workers up there, ensuring that their hospitals are safe,” she said.

Meanwhile, as Papua New Guinea teeters on the brink of a catastrophic outbreak of Covid-19, there are fears that complacency with border security could result in the virus reaching the Torres Strait and then mainland Australia.

 Covid cases in Papua New Guinea have jumped alarmingly over the last fortnight. The Pacific nation has reported a total of 2,269 cases and 26 deaths over the course of the pandemic but there are fears that the true rate of community transmission is much higher and is masked by low testing rates.

 Fears about the spread of Covid have led to the fast-tracking of the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine in the Torres Strait this week, including on the island of Saibai which is only a short dinghy ride south of PNG’s Western province.

 A Queensland Health spokesperson said this week 40 people on Saibai had been vaccinated, with plans to start vaccinating people on Boigu and Dauan islands next week.

 “While I am really happy the vaccine is being rolled out in community, especially with the rising number of Covid-19 cases in PNG, we cannot be complacent,” the Torres Strait Island regional council mayor, Phillemon Mosby, told the Guardian.

 “Our communities are small and with overcrowded living conditions. Just one case in community would spread rapidly, our people are vulnerable, and an outbreak would be catastrophic.

 “Our people move around between islands and with the conflicting news stories about the safety of the vaccines, many people are not sure if it is safe, so who can say that 100% of people on Saibai are being vaccinated this week or Boigu next week?”

 There is normally a porous border between PNG and the Torres Strait, and movements of traditional inhabitants can reach up to 50,000 a year under the Torres Strait treaty. But since March last year all cross-border movements have been suspended.

 An Australian Border Force (ABF) spokesperson said the ban on all cross-border travel would remain “until further notice” and ABF was “closely monitoring the situation in close cooperation with Australian and Papua New Guinea (PNG) counterparts”.

 Over the past year the ABF has committed significant air, sea and land-based resources, the ABF spokesperson said, including ships, fast-response boats, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and personnel deployments.

 This approach had resulted in a significant reduction in cross-border incursions, which had helped protect the Torres Strait region from Covid.

 Mosby urged the government to keep the borders closed until widespread vaccination had occurred and Australia had a better sense of the how widespread community transmission was in PNG.

 “I am aware the Australian Government are having talks with the PNG government in terms of us helping roll out the vaccine there but given what is happening across the rest of the world right now, we do not want the border opened prematurely,” he said.

 “We need our people vaccinated and the border kept shut until we can get such information of how many people have been screened in PNG, how many have been vaccinated and allow time for that process to take its course.

 “It may be that it is under-resourced, and it could be the window of opportunity for the virus to come into our country,” Mosby said.


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