The Morrison government is gifting 8,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Papua New Guinea, and demanding AstraZeneca and European authorities urgently provide one million doses of Australia’s contracted supplies to help the country deal with its escalating pandemic crisis.
In an effort to prevent transmission of the virus to Australia, the government is also suspending passenger flights from PNG into Cairns from midnight for at least a fortnight.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a raft of measures at a news conference on Wednesday morning, aimed at both supporting PNG and protecting Australians.
Charter flights from PNG are also being suspended (with limited exemptions for medevac and the like) and the passenger caps on flights from Port Moresby to Brisbane are being cut by a quarter.
Outbound travel exemptions for Australians to go to PNG will be suspended – except for critical workers – including for fly-in-fly-out workers. “You FI or you FO,” Morrison said. “If you’re there, you stay. If you’re here, you stay. We cannot risk more people going into those areas and then coming back to Australia.”
The government will boost the medical support it is providing to PNG. It will gift one million surgical masks, 200,000 P295 respirator masks, 100,000 gowns, 100,000 goggles, 100,000 pairs of gloves, 100,000 bottles of sanitiser, 20,000 face shields, and 200 non-invasive ventilators.
The 8,000 vaccine doses will be used for frontline health workers from next week.
Morrison said the doses Australia was seeking to assist this “developing country in desperate need of these vaccines” had been contracted for by Australia.
“We’ve paid for them and we want to see these vaccines come here so we can support our nearest neighbour, PNG, to deal with their urgent needs. And we’ll be seeking the support of the European Union and AstraZeneca to achieve that as soon as possible.”
A critical planning AUSMAT team of health specialists will be sent to PNG next week. They will work with PNG authorities on infection control, triage and emergency management, and public health measures. They will also prepare for further Australian assistance and deployment of a clinical team.
Vaccinations are particularly important for those in the Torres Strait Protected Zone, where people on both sides of the strait form one community. The Queensland government has already begun this rollout, and the federal government will work with the PNG government, as well as with Queensland.
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said the PNG situation had changed very rapidly in the last couple of weeks and there was now “a major pandemic in the community”. He said mass testing had been done at the Ok Tedi Mine and almost half the results were positive. Australia has already suspended flights from the mine.
“They are finding the same when people are being admitted into hospital in Port Moresby – half of the women who are coming in due to pregnancy are positive.”
According to the latest numbers on Tuesday, there were 82 new cases in the previous 24 hours. This brought the total official number of cases to 2,351, including 26 deaths.
Morrison said of PNG: “They’re our family. They’re our neighbours. They’re our partners. They have always stood with us and we will always stand with them.”
PNG Prime Minister James Marape said this week his country was now “in the critical red stage” of COVID-19.
“We are possibly having an infection rate about one to three or four in our country.”
He said “the status of our public health system is that what we have in our country is not adequate to sustain a full-blown outbreak, that is of pandemic nature”.