Analysis: Reopening our borders will never be risk-free, but for now officials believe the risk is too high. Jonathan Milne manages expectations

The worrying outbreak of Covid-19 in Papua New Guinea is bringing new clarity to discussions about vaccine roll-outs and border controls.

The Australians have supplied 2000 army tents to help triage patients at Port Moresby hospital, and vowed to send 8000 doses of their own supply of AstraZeneca vaccine to address the deteriorating situation just 150km from the Australian mainland.

A Royal NZ Air Force Boeing 757 flew from Auckland to Papua New Guinea this weekend carrying four tonnes of PPE equipment, in the first of two flights intended to help local authorities treat 1,000 cases. As Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta says, we need to look beyond our own borders in the fight to eradicate Covid-19.

 Should New Zealand or the Pacific nations be responsible for the big call on when they’re ready to accept tourists? Click here to comment.

Today, Jacinda Ardern’s Cabinet will discuss travel bubbles with Australia and Cook Islands, in the hope of announcing more details about the scheduling this week. The Government is under domestic pressure from service industries like tourism and education, and under international pressure from Australia and even Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown, visiting this week.

Manage your expectations. The detection of 12 Covid cases in Papua New Guinea travellers arriving in Queensland this weekend will remind Cabinet Ministers that to open New Zealand’s borders to Australia and the wider Pacific is to open them to the world.

And this month’s 24 deaths in Papua New Guinea show the impact on the people of a poorly-equipped island nation if things go wrong. There were just six active cases in that country in November; the country’s government was optimistic about eliminating the coronavirus. Now there are more than 2200 active cases.

At Whenuapai air base in Auckland, an RNZAF Air Movements personnel sanitises PPE, ready to be palleted and sent to Papua New Guinea. Photo: NZDF
At Whenuapai air base in Auckland, RNZAF Air Movements personnel sanitise protective equipment, ready to be palleted and sent to Papua New Guinea. Photo: NZDF

RNZAF Air Component Commander Air Commodore Shaun Sexton said aircrew on the air force Boeing 757 successfully completed a contactless delivery to Port Moresby.

“Our personnel have robust Covid-19 prevention procedures in place and we are well versed in contactless delivery of essential equipment, including when taking emergency relief supplies to Pacific countries following tropical cyclones,” he said.

“The NZDF always stands ready to assist our Pacific neighbours in times of need.’’

The cargo was sanitised in New Zealand before being loaded on to the aircraft. It was offloaded from the aircraft on to the tarmac at Port Moresby International Airport, for collection by Papua New Guinea workers after air force personnel were clear of the site.

Air Force aircrew undergo a range of measures to prevent any potential spread of Covid-19 including health screening prior to departure, swab testing, hand washing and sanitising, wearing face masks and gloves, and physical distancing.

The thousands of sick patients (including more than 100 doctors and nurses) besieging Papua New Guinea’s struggling hospitals are a grim reminder.

It is understood from Government sources that there are also concerns about Cook Islands public health readiness that are proving an impediment to progress on a travel bubble.

Mark Brown’s government has failed to drive contact-tracing – in a country that has had no Covid cases, there is even greater complacency about swiping than in NZ. And NZ officials found authorities’ claims about fortnightly testing of border workers were misplaced; some had not been tested for four or five months.

These problems only strengthen the belief of NZ health experts that the first priority must be to send vaccines to the Pacific, not tourists. That may still be some time away.

Some experts say the best option for the Pacific would be the Johnson & Johnson single-shot vaccine – New Zealand has agreed to buy 5 millions doses of that vaccine, but it doesn’t yet have Medsafe approval.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is seen as a better solution than the Pfizer two-shot vaccine that requires super-cold storage. Pfizer has presented new evidence to international regulators as it pushes to be allowed to store its vaccine at regular freezer temperatures, rather than -70C.

But New Zealand health authorities remain dubious. And they are averse to the logistics challenge of getting the Pfizer vaccines from super-cold storage in New Zealand into the arms of the peoples of Pacific nations, in just five days – that’s the challenge the Pfizer vaccine poses. One possibility is a test-run for bigger island nations by vaccinating the tiny population of Niue, a realm nation with only about 1500 people.

The Government has announced the Defence Force is vaccinating its uniformed personnel in readiness to respond to disasters like tropical cyclones. But it seems likely their first Pacific mission will be delivering and administering Covid vaccines.

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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