Australia will request a million AstraZeneca doses originally meant for use onshore be diverted to Papua New Guinea, as the island nation deals with an out-of-control second COVID-19 wave.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has unveiled a range of measures aimed at supporting PNG through the outbreak, which he said posed “very real risks” to northern Australia, including suspending flights to the country from Cairns.
The federal government has requested doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine ordered from Europe be sent to PNG instead and will gift 8000 doses of its COVID-19 vaccine stocks to support PNG frontline health workers from next week.
Personal protective equipment, including masks and sanitiser, will also be sent to the island nation.
“They’re our family, they’re our friends, they’re our neighbours, they’re our partners. They have always stood with us and we will always stand with them,” he said.
“This is in Australia’s interests, and it is in our region’s interests, and it’s incumbent on us as Australians both to secure the health of our own citizens but equally our PNG family who are so dear to us.”
Australia’s own supply of the AstraZeneca jab has been delayed by Europe imposing export restrictions on vaccines made within its territory.
But given the humanitarian crisis gripping PNG, Mr Morrison said he expected and “would hope to get the co-operation out of Europe”, which he said was opposed to vaccine protectionism.
“We’ve all said that we need to get vaccines where they’re needed,” he 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 otherwise.”
Mr Morrison said testing had been ramped across the Torres Strait and pre-departure testing of people coming from PNG had been implemented.
But he announced a range of travel restrictions on Wednesday, including a ban on fly-in, fly-out workers.
All passenger flights from PNG to Cairns will be suspended for a fortnight, while travel exemptions for people travelling to PNG will be suspended, barring critical and aid workers.
“If you’re there, you stay. If you’re here, you stay. We cannot risk people going into those areas and back to Australia,” Mr Morrison said.
A critical planning AUSMAT team will be dispatched to PNG next week, while Australia has requested support from the US, India and Japan to provide technical assistance for PNG’s vaccine rollout.
Mr Morrison said the challenge of containing COVID-19 was “always going to be too great” for PNG.
Chief medical officer Paul Kelly said the situation in PNG had escalated “very rapidly”, with over half the cases diagnosed in PNG discovered in the past few weeks.
“They’ve done mass test entering and almost half the samples are positive,” he said.
“They’re finding the same when people are being admitted into hospitals in Port Moresby.
“Half of women who are coming in due to pregnancy are positive.”
The wave has sparked fears of a COVID-19 outbreak across Queensland after travellers returning from PNG tested positive to the virus.
Over half the COVID-19 cases in the state’s hotel quarantine system originated in PNG.
Professor Kelly said immunisations in the Torres Strait, where there were many cultural connections with traditional inhabitants on PNG, was a “first step” to protecting Australia.
“You can actually see the southern coast of Papua New Guinea from one island … so it’s very close” he said.
“It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also in Australia’s interest to work with Papua New Guinea in this time.”
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the state’s health department and police would do what they could to help keep the state safe.
“For people living in the far north, I want to reassure you that your government is working in your best interests,” she said.
“We know some Papua New Guinea bordering communities are very close to the Torres Strait, so of course that will be a priority for us.
“We’re in this together … We’re neighbours and we help each other out.
“I think people can rest easier to know their governments are working together to keep them safe.”
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the support was worked out “in partnership” with PNG.
“We’ve been engaging regularly and in depth with senior leaders,” she said.
“The PNG health system is supported in its own capacity obviously. The AUSMAT team will be part of that analysis, and they will do a critical needs analysis when they arrive next week.
“There is a significant number of NGOs who have presence on the ground and have medical professionals on the ground as well.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong blasted the government for not acting earlier, saying Australia’s safety and security depended on the stability of its neighbours.
“We should work to contain the outbreak in Papua New Guinea, as a matter of national emergency,” she said.
“We know PNG has a lot of challenges in public health infrastructure.
“So whatever Australia is able to do to contain this outbreak for the people of PNG, and to lessen the risk also of this generating a greater outbreak in northern Australia, we should do.”