Australia is on high alert over a worsening coronavirus outbreak in Papua New Guinea, which poses a “clear and present danger” to both nations.
Half of the 500 COVID tests conducted in PNG on Monday came back positive, as did about 40 per cent of the samples from the Ok Tedi mine.
More than half of Queensland’s active cases have been linked to PNG.
The state is rolling out out priority vaccinations in the Torres Strait, which is just four kilometres from its northern neighbour.
Health Minister Greg Hunt told a joint party room meeting in Canberra on Tuesday the situation represented a “clear and present danger”.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in Canberra the government had arranged to send an AUSMAT team to help manage the situation.
It will also help to reopen PNG health facilities, including testing centres.
“We understand the system is very strained,” she said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison left his party room meeting early to receive advice before talking to his PNG counterpart James Marape about the developing situation.
“Let’s not lose sight of the serious challenge that is still in front of us,” he told colleagues.
“We must also focus our attention on our family in the region, to the north in the Pacific.”
Labor’s Pacific spokesman Pat Conroy said there were three million people in PNG living in regions with no doctors.
“There is a humanitarian crisis looming on our doorstop,” he told caucus members.
Australian Council for International Development chief executive Marc Purcell has urged the federal government to increase its investment to deal with the virus crisis in PNG and enable countries to better handle outbreaks in future.
“Australia’s aid effort was a critical forward defence against COVID over the past year,” Mr Purcell said.
“There is no steady state for a pandemic, it either multiplies or dwindles. We must double down on the global vaccination effort and build stronger health systems in our region. This is the best way to fight poverty and instability in our neighbourhood and beyond.”
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has been in contact with Mr Morrison about the issue.
“The Commonwealth government has been very good in this space,” she said on Tuesday.
“They’ve often reached out at times of need of our Pacific Island neighbours. I don’t think that they will ignore this situation.”
She raised extra support for PNG’s hospitals and vaccinations for healthcare workers as ways the federal government could help.
There have been just under 2270 virus cases in PNG and 26 confirmed deaths, according to the World Health Organisation.
The closest islands in the Torres Strait are just a short dinghy ride to the country, and leaders in the region say an outbreak in one of the communities would be devastating.
Torres Strait Island Regional Council mayor Phillemon Mosby said his region was unlike any other part of Australia.
“We’re very remote, very vulnerable,” he said.
“Therefore careful consideration needs to be taken when we’re rolling out a vaccination like this to combat a global health pandemic.”