Australia will send 8,000 doses of its COVID-19 vaccine supply to Papua New Guinea next week and is asking AstraZeneca and European authorities to divert another 1 million doses to the country.
- PNG has more than 1,400 confirmed cases of COVID-19, but the real number is likely to be much higher
- Flights have been suspended between Port Moresby and Cairns
- Australia will send masks, gowns, gloves, ventilators and sanitiser to PNG
Australia’s closest neighbour is in the grip of a worsening COVID-19 crisis, with more than 1,400 active cases.
Health experts fear the real figure is much higher because of massive undetected community transmission.
Mr Morrison said it was in Australia’s interest to help PNG.
“It is also true that the escalation of issues with the virus in PNG presents very real risks to Australia as well,” he said, saying the risks were particularly high in Queensland and the Torres Strait.
“With the support of the PNG government we’re making a formal request to AstraZeneca and the European authorities to access 1 million doses of our contracted supplies of AstraZeneca not for Australia, but for PNG, a developing country in desperate need of these vaccines.
“We’ve paid for them and we want to see those vaccines come here so we can support our nearest neighbour.”
Mr Morrison said that while some supplies of the vaccine would be diverted from Australia, he believed Australians “would be generous in spirit”.
“I think Australians understand that that is one of our responsibilities as an advanced nation,” he said.
‘An act of leadership’
Aid groups have praised the federal government’s response.
Marc Purcell, from the Australian Council for International Development, said it was crucial for Australia to help efforts to control the pandemic’s spread.
“The immediate 8,000 vaccinations for healthcare workers is vital, and the proposed allocation of 1 million vaccines for PNG is an act of leadership by the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister,” Mr Purcell said.
World Vision Australia chief executive Daniel Wordsworth also welcomed the announcement, but said the organisation remained concerned by low testing rates in PNG.
“If COVID is not eradicated in our region, indeed worldwide, it will not be eradicated here [in Australia] either,” he said.
“The longer the pandemic continues, the more likely variants and mutations of the virus will develop, much like what we have seen already in South Africa, Brazil and UK, with devastating consequences.”
The Labor Party accused the federal government of moving too slowly to help PNG get the pandemic under control.
Speaking before the Prime Minister’s announcement, Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong said the government should have acted earlier.
“We all know this is a porous border. We all know how close we are to PNG, and we’ve seen this highly risky situation unfolding for some time now,” Ms Wong said.
“It has been uncertain. It has been tardy.”
Travel restrictions tightened, flights suspended
Meanwhile, travel restrictions between Australia and Papua New Guinea are being tightened, with a suspension of flights between Port Moresby and Cairns, and a ban on workers flying in and out of the country.
“Starting at midnight tonight, we will further reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission from PNG to Australia by suspending passenger flights from Papua New Guinea into Cairns,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at a press conference.
The flight suspension will be in place for two weeks, when the situation will be reassessed, but freight will continue.
There will be limited exemptions for medevac and other critical flights.
Further Australian medical support will also be made available to PNG, including masks, gowns, gloves, ventilators and sanitiser.
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said assisting PNG was “not only the right thing to do, but it will also protect Australia”.
“Of the cases diagnosed in PNG, half of them have been diagnosed in the past couple of weeks, from the beginning of the pandemic,” he said.
“They did not have … resources for mass testing like we have in Australia, so any number you see out of Papua New Guinea of cases and even deaths will be a major underestimate.”
He said of the tests being carried out, “almost half the samples are positive”.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the government would deploy a three-person AUSMAT team to PNG to carry out “critical needs analysis” and help open more testing centres.
“We understand the system is very strained,” she said.