Australia stepping-up to address COVID-19 in the Pacific
Prime Minister Scott Morrison told G20 leaders on 26 March, “our Pacific island family must be a focus of international support. There has never been a more important time for Australia’s Pacific Step-up as we all face these massive challenges.”
The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Marise Payne, and the Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Alex Hawke, announced in their commitment to tackling the challenge with our Pacific partners on 1 April, “Australia’s response will build on our existing Pacific Step-up, which has strengthened our co-operation in helping to grow economies, build resilience, and enhance regional stability… We have never faced a challenge of the scale of COVID-19, but we will combat it together as a Pacific family.”
Since January 2020, Australia has been working with Pacific island countries (PICs) and Timor-Leste to help them prepare for the pandemic. We have also been adapting the aid program to provide immediate relief to help respond to the emerging health, economic, social and impacts from COVID−19. We have provided funding to the World Health Organization’s regional COVID-19 response plan. We have moved quickly to respond to early requests for support, including medical supplies and health expertise.
Essential services and humanitarian corridor
The Australian Government is working to maintain an essential services and humanitarian corridor to the Pacific and Timor-Leste, recognising we are an important transport hub for the Pacific and Timor-Leste. This will allow for the movement of a limited number of international experts, essential supplies, and food to the Pacific.
We are working in partnership with Pacific island countries, Timor-Leste, New Zealand and regional organisations on this initiative. Our work will not compromise Australia’s own strong border and containment measures.
Visa arrangements for the Pacific Labour Scheme and Seasonal Worker Program
On 4 April, in a joint statement, Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne and Minister for International Development and the Pacific Alex Hawke underscored that the welfare of Pacific workers in Australia was a priority for the Government. They highlighted the Government’s decision to extend visas for Pacific and Timorese workers in Australia under the Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) and Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS), enabling them to remain in Australia for up to 12 months. This will enable the workers to continue to support themselves and their families and communities back home. This underlines the special role Pacific and Timorese workers play in Australia’s agriculture sector.
Assisting Pacific islanders to return home
Australia is committed to making sure Pacific islanders and Timorese nationals can get home. They are still able to transit through Australia en-route to Pacific destinations and Timor-Leste. Australia is also now implementing screening measures at Australian airports for both transit and outbound flights to the Pacific and Timor-Leste. Along with the ban on Australians travelling overseas, this will reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 for Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste.
Pacific posts remain open
Australia’s large network of high commissions and embassies across the Pacific and in Timor-Leste remain open. This allows work to continue, including the delivery of Australia’s development assistance to the Pacific and Timor-Leste.
We have been able to ensure most of the essential Australian advisers, in key positions in Pacific island government health, justice and economic policy sectors, are able to stay to continue working with Pacific governments, and to manage and respond to the crisis.
Local staff also play a key role in the delivery of the Australian development assistance and are the backbone of our aid program personnel.
Australia’s response to Tropical Cyclone Harald
On 10 April, in a joint media release, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds made clear Australia stood with our Pacific family affected by the devastation of Cyclone Harold. They outlined Australia’s assistance to Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu, and our work to support partner governments to help people affected by the cyclone and to jointly address the risks of COVID-19.