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PNG’s Covid control runs into trouble

Mask wearing in Port Moresby (ABC News  Natalie Whiting)
Photo: Natalie Whiting, ABC News

| Australian Broadcasting Corporation | Extracts

PORT MORESBY - An internal Papua New Guinean ministerial briefing obtained by the ABC shows that unnamed government ministers are trying to exempt some passengers from quarantine, which they don't have the authority to do.

It says international passengers arriving at Jackson's Airport in Port Moresby are "frequently showing letters issued by government ministers claiming to authorise the passengers to be exempted from quarantine.

"This is causing disputes at the airport as only the controller has the power to issue exemptions," the briefing said.

But health minister Jelta Wong said that once the current quarantine system was explained to Ministers, they were doing the right thing.

"It's a process that takes about two weeks and it sort of pushes some ministers to say, 'oh, we need this done quickly and they need to be in the country'," he said.

"But once we explain the effects of if these guys come in and there's community transmission, they say 'oh, ok, we'll follow your protocols'."

In one case, a man was able to escape quarantine and drink in a bar

In March last year, PNG closed its borders to incoming passengers. It then introduced a system to allow citizens and some foreigners in.

They must have approval from the pandemic controller and a negative Covid-19 test, and are required to complete two weeks of quarantine.

But staff managing quarantine at the airport don't have police or security support to "enforce passengers to comply, resulting in some passengers walking out of the airport without going into the quarantine system or location tracking app", according to the briefing document.

It warned point of entry staff at the airport were fatigued as they were required "to work extremely long hours daily" to keep up with flight arrival times and were "putting themselves at risk" travelling to and from the airport at dark as they had "insufficient access" to vehicles.

In a recent media statement, PNG's pandemic controller David Manning highlighted the need to strengthen the country's quarantine system, especially given how new variants of Covid-19 are appearing in other countries.

"Quarantine is one of the most important measures being employed to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the country and must be strictly observed," he said in a statement.

"We are doing well but we need to improve because right now the quality is not there. There are other reasons why this is so, but the biggest of this due to logistics and financial resources."

Papua New Guinea has so far recorded 1,111 Covid-19 cases and 10 deaths. More than 60% of recorded cases also show no symptoms.

Genomic testing on the virus strain in PNG is currently underway, but it's believed the strain is one of the earlier, less severe variants.

But Anna Maalsen from the World Health Organisation and other health officials are warning PNG must stay vigilant.

"We do know health-seeking behaviour in general is often low [in PNG] … so coming to a health facility when you are sick is low in general," she said.

"And PNG has a very young population, so the severe cases we see in other countries are usually linked to older adults."

The ministerial briefing said several provincial health authorities are "continually failing" to send reports on Covid-19 testing numbers, with nine provinces listed as supplying zero test reports.

It means they aren't testing or haven't submitted the data to the National Control Centre.

Given the low testing rate, the coronavirus case figure in PNG is believed to be much higher.

More than 130 new cases have been reported since last Thursday.

Mr Manning and two members of his family were among the recent cases after testing positive at the weekend. He has urged anyone with symptoms to get tested.

The ABC has been told that two ministers and other members of parliament have also tested positive.

The ABC has put questions to the prime minister's media department about possible infections among MPs and impacts on government work but is yet to receive a response.

Some government events planned for the end of this month have been postponed due to "medical and health reasons", while the police headquarters and the Treasury building have been temporarily closed for cleaning after cases were detected there.


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