Labor has called on the Morrison government to provide emergency medical assistance to Papua New Guinea, including providing doses of the Covid vaccine for the country’s health workers, as concerns escalate about the growing number of cases in the Pacific nation.
The calls come as Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced that Queensland facilities had been conducting Covid tests for PNG, with one recent batch of 500 samples returning a staggering 250 positive results.
“Some 500 tests, 250 positives. So one in two people. That’s quite extraordinary and quite concerning when it’s right on our doorstep,” Palaszczuk said.
Pat Conroy, Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific, called the outbreak in Papua New Guinea, which has seen an alarming increase in cases in the last fortnight, “incredibly concerning”.
Conroy told Guardian Australia that the Australian government should provide Papua New Guinea with medical assistance, including Personal Protective Equipment and rapid testing kits.
“I also believe that there is a compelling case for Australia to provide emergency doses of the COVID vaccine to PNG health workers to help stop the spread. This is the right thing to do and is clearly in our national interest,” he said.
“Beyond the impact on our close friends in PNG, if the outbreak in Papua New Guinea is not quickly contained, there is a very good chance COVID-19 could spread throughout Australia.”
The number of cases in PNG has been relatively low throughout the pandemic, with 2,083 confirmed cases and 21 deaths in the country, according to the country’s National Department of Health. However, the number of cases has jumped dramatically in the last fortnight and there are fears that the true number of cases has been masked by low testing rates, with just 55,000 tests having been conducted across the country of nearly 9 million people.
Queensland’s health and hotel quarantine systems are dealing with new Covid cases from PNG every week. Of the six new infections reported in quarantine settings in Queensland on Monday, two were from PNG.
Last week, Cairns Hospital declared a code yellow internal emergency when it neared capacity and began to struggle with high emergency department presentations with six mine workers who’d contracted Covid-19 in PNG.
Queensland heath authorities are now flying Covid-19 patients from Cairns to Brisbane to ensure the hospital does not reach that point again.
Queensland’s health minister Yvette D’Ath planned to speak to her federal counterpart, Greg Hunt, with the state government seeking urgent talks with the federal government to ensure a suspension of flights for fly-in, fly-out workers attached to PNG’s Ok Tedi Mine is extended.
“We need to look at our coordinated response. There is an issue there for the federal government. I understand they are providing some assistance into Papua New Guinea but maybe we need to look at a vaccine rollout program there as well,” the premier told reporters.
‘“It is right on our doorstep and it is a real risk. That is why we are getting our Indigenous and Torres Strait Islanders vaccinated as quickly as possible.”
The northern islands of the Torres Strait are just kilometres off the PNG coast. Saibai Island is just four kilometres from mainland PNG and historically people have moved freely between PNG and the Torres Strait by boat. Vaccinations were due to begin on Saibai Island on Monday.
“We know there are a lot of Queenslanders who work or live in PNG so we are very concerned at the moment,” the premier said.
The Queensland government is seeking an assurance from prime minister Scott Morrison that charter flights from the Ok Tedi Mine will remain suspended beyond the current two-week ban.
Earlier this month the chief executive of Port Moresby General Hospital, Paki Molumi, warned the health system would collapse if the situation worsened.
“We are testing all staff that have symptoms. There are many others out there in the community who have symptoms but are not coming in to be tested and continue to spread the virus. That is a big worry for us,” he said.
“Soon our clinics and hospitals will be flooded with patients beyond our capacity.”
A netball stadium, converted to a Covid-19 clinic at the start of the pandemic, has been reopened to treat overflow cases.
The governor of Port Moresby, Powes Parkop, said the capital’s healthy authority did not have enough funding, manpower or resources to deal with the surge in infections.