Australia will request 1 million AstraZeneca doses originally meant for use onshore be diverted to PNG, and will gift 8000 doses of its vaccine stocks to support PNG health workers. Photo / AP

A Covid-19 crisis unfolding in a neighbouring nation has prompted Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to take drastic and immediate action.

Papua New Guinea is dealing with an alarming rise in daily coronavirus cases, which Morrison today branded a “great concern”.

Morrison said the second-wave outbreak in PNG presents a “very real risk” to Australia and, as a result, several restrictions will be brought in.

From midnight tonight all passenger flights from PNG to Cairns will be suspended for a fortnight, with authorities to reassess the situation after that time.

All charter flights from the country to Australia will also be suspended, apart from limited exemptions such as medevac and other critical flights.

All outbound travel exemptions by Australians to PNG will be suspended, except for essential workers. Fly in fly out (FIFO) workers will not be included in the list of exempted parties.

Australia will also be offering more medical support to PNG, with more supplies and vaccines to be shipped out from next week.

“If you’re there, you stay. If you’re here, you stay. We cannot risk people going into those areas and back to Australia,” 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.

Morrison said the challenge of containing Covid-19 was “always going to be too great” for PNG.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison: “If you’re there, you stay. If you’re here, you stay. We cannot risk people going into those areas and back to Australia.” Photo / APAustralia’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly said the situation in PNG had escalated “very rapidly”, with more than 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.

“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.”

Australia will request 1 million AstraZeneca doses originally meant for use onshore be diverted to Papua New Guinea, 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.

Morrison said, “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.

“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, 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.

“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.”

The escalating situation in PNG has sparked fears of a Covid outbreak across Queensland, after a number of 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.

“It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also in Australia’s interest to work with Papua New Guinea in this time.”

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.

“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.

“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.”