The Morrison government is being pressed to urgently send COVID vaccines to Papua New Guinea, as the Pacific nation battles a massive rise in cases.
The worsening outbreak, described by Health Minister Greg Hunt as a “clear and present danger”, is ringing alarm bells in Canberra after half of the virus tests in some regions came back positive.
Reports emerged early on Wednesday suggesting an announcement about the provision of vaccines to PNG was imminent.
The Australian and the ABC have reported that the federal government will reveal Australian-made AstraZeneca vaccines will be distributed throughout the Pacific from May.
Earlier this week, Cairns Hospital declared a “code yellow” emergency after six fly-in-fly-out workers from PNG tested positive in hotel quarantine.
More than half of Queensland’s active coronavirus cases have been linked to PNG and authorities fear that number could spike.
On Tuesday, Labor called on the federal government to ramp up emergency relief to PNG before the crisis escalated out of control, warning that three million people in the developing country lived in regions with no doctors.
The government has committed to helping poorer Pacific neighbours with vaccine supplies.
But the opposition wants it to fast-track these plans to protect PNG’s frontline health workers, even though this could further delay Australia’s sluggish vaccine rollout.
— Natalie Whiting (@Nat_Whiting) March 16, 2021
Labor health spokesperson Mark Butler called the situation in PNG a “burgeoning emergency” that required urgent attention.
“It is in our national interest, as well as a good neighbour, that COVID does not get a hold in PNG,” Mr Butler said.
Labor also suggested sending fresh deliveries of personal protective equipment to the Pacific nation, as well as conducting more rapid tests and setting up testing and vaccination clinics.
“There is a humanitarian crisis looming on our doorstop,” the party’s Pacific spokesman, Pat Conroy, told a caucus meeting on Tuesday.
There have been just under 2270 cases in PNG and 26 confirmed deaths, according to the World Health Organisation.
At least half of the 500 tests conducted by Queensland health authorities in PNG on Monday came back positive, as did about 40 per cent of samples from the Ok Tedi mine.
Queensland is rolling out priority vaccinations in the Torres Strait, where some islands are just four kilometres from PNG.
Meanwhile, the government has responded to the crisis by arranging to send a small AUSMAT (Australian Medical Assistance Teams) team, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said on Tuesday.
It will also help to reopen PNG health facilities, including testing centres.
“We understand the system is very strained,” Senator Payne 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.”
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the federal government has been “very good in this space”.
“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 said.
She raised extra support for PNG’s hospitals and vaccinations for healthcare workers as ways the federal government could help.
Leaders in the Torres Strait region say a coronavirus outbreak in one of the island 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.”