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.
In Papua New Guinea, from January 3 to March 16 there have been 2351 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 26 deaths reported to WHO – 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.
Mr 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, 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.
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 program, we have announced $144 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.
Mr 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 yesterday confirmed more than 50 per cent of the state’s cases in hotel quarantine originated in PNG.
Since March 15, there have been 32 cases from PNG imported into Queensland and 13 are currently being managed in the state’s hospitals.
Ms 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.