Papua New Guinea orders restrictions as Covid-19 numbers climb

Total cases in Papua New Guinea stand at just under 2,500 and deaths at 31. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Papua New Guinea officials will tighten internal border controls, restrict personal movement, and enforce mask wearing in public from next week, as the country confronts a steep rise in Covid-19 infections.

Officials in the Pacific island nation of 9 million people also said they will bar mass gatherings, close schools and may order burials in a "designated mass grave" as part of sweeping measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

PNG has recorded a spike in Covid-19 cases in recent weeks, with hundreds of new daily cases. Total cases stand at just under 2,500 and deaths at 31, but health officials believe the true numbers are likely much higher.

Neighbouring Australia has pledged 8,000 doses of the AstraZeneca Plc vaccine for PNG health workers, and asked the European Union to release 1 million doses of its supply, as local media reported patients being turned away from overrun hospitals.

New Zealand also said on Friday it was sending PNG enough personal protective equipment kits to treat 1,000 Covid-19 cases.

The social distancing measures being imposed from Monday (March 22) will remain in force until the end of the declaration of the pandemic, unless revoked earlier by officials, PNG pandemic response controller David Manning said in a statement.

"Authorised officers" would be tasked with enforcing compliance and anybody found breaching the rules could be penalised, the statement added, without providing further detail.

Though far-reaching, the measures do not go as far as the strict stay-home orders and border closures imposed over the past year in parts of Australia, where local transmission has been all but eliminated.

The PNG ban on public gatherings of more than 10 people includes exemptions for religious gatherings of up to 50 if worshippers follow social distancing requirements. Shops can open 13 hours a day and restaurants 15 hours.

Domestic flights are allowed if travellers undertake temperature checks and produce a negative Covid-19 test result.

Travel between the country's 22 provinces can continue for essential purposes like essential business, healthcare and returning home.

"The outbreak in PNG is rapidly escalating, with hospitals and clinics overwhelmed and many health workers already infected," MSF Australia Executive Director Jennifer Tierney said in a statement.

"What's needed is a bigger response, now, before the situation gets out of control."

State-owned Ok Tedi Mining Ltd on Friday began a two-week suspension at its copper mine in the Western Province, the area hardest hit outside the capital Port Moresby.

The Australian government earlier this week suspended travel exemptions which had allowed fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) mining and energy workers to travel between the two countries.

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