The COVID-19 pandemic continues to have a profound impact on Australia and our Pacific neighbours. Managing the social, economic and health impacts of COVID-19 remains a central challenge for our region. Australia remains committed to the needs of our immediate neighbourhood, as we face the pandemic together.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison told fellow 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.”
Australia’s COVID-19 response in the Pacific builds on years of cooperation in health, education, security and disaster response. Since January 2020, Australia has worked with Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste to help them prepare for and respond to the pandemic. We have responded to more than 120 requests from our region for assistance since January. We have adapted the aid program to provide immediate relief to help Pacific partners respond to the emerging health, economic, social and impacts of COVID−19. We have continued to provide COVID-19 testing kits, PPE, critical care equipment and other medical supplies to our region, including AUSMAT specialists to Papua New Guinea.
Australia has also committed to procure and deliver COVID-19 Vaccines to our partners to the Pacific, Timor-Leste and Southeast Asia.We have committed $80 million to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation COVAX Facility Advance Market Commitment to improve vaccine access for Pacific and Southeast Asian countries.
In addition, Australia is establishing a new, temporary $304.7 million COVID-19 Response Package over two years, as part of our Pacific Step-up, to help address the economic and social costs of the pandemic in the Pacific and Timor-Leste, helping to underpin our region’s stability and economic recovery. The package will include budget support measures to enable Pacific partner governments to maintain essential services, including for the most vulnerable, as well as assistance for Pacific aviation to help maintain air connectivity.
Essential services and humanitarian corridor
The Australian Government is working to maintain an essential services and humanitarian corridor (the Corridor) to the Pacific and Timor-Leste, recognising we are an important transport hub for our region. This allows for the movement of essential humanitarian and medical supplies from and through Australia to the Pacific and Timor-Leste. Australia is supporting the delivery of new GeneXpert testing equipment, allowing Pacific island countries to detect and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Over 116,000 GeneXpert COVID-19 testing cartridges will be provided to Pacific island countries. The Corridor is also supporting people to return home and a limited number of international experts. This initiative complements the Pacific Island Forum’s Pacific Humanitarian Pathway for COVID-19, which Australia has helped operationalise with dedicated funding through the World Food Programme (WFP) and through our corridor.
Since the establishment of the Corridor on 24 March 2020, Australia has
- Delivered over 40 tonnes of humanitarian supplies to 13 Pacific island countries and Timor-Leste
- Accessed over 300 flights to deliver these essential supplies and allowed over 750 Australians and 1,500 Pacific island and Timorese nationals to return home.
Support for the Pacific Labour Scheme and Seasonal Worker Program
On 21 August, Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne and Minister for International Development and the Pacific Alex Hawke jointly announced that National Cabinet had agreed to recommence recruitments under the Pacific Labour Scheme (PLS) and Seasonal Workers Programme (SWP) to alleviate persistent workforce shortages in critical sectors of the economy. It will also help economic recovery in our region, given the value of these labour mobility programs in delivering the jobs, skills and remittances to the Pacific and Timor-Leste. The announcement to resume targeted recruitments followed a decision by the Australian and Northern Territory Governments to trial the resumption of the schemes. 162 seasonal workers arrived in Darwin on 3 September 2020 to help with the mango harvest, after completing 14 days quarantine.
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 SWP and PLS, enabling them to remain in Australia for up to a further 12 months while continuing to support themselves and their families and communities back home, as well as play a continuing role in supporting food supply in Australia. The government has adopted a number of measures to support the welfare of Pacific workers in Australia through COVID-19.
Assisting Pacific islanders to return home
Australia is committed to making sure Pacific islanders and Timorese nationals can get home. They are able to transit through Australia en-route to Pacific destinations and Timor-Leste. To protect our region, Australia has also been implementing screening measures at Australian airports for both transit and outbound flights to the Pacific and Timor-Leste. Along with the restrictions on Australians travelling overseas, this is reducing 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 has remained open during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has allowed work to continue, including the delivery of Australia’s development assistance to our region.
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, were 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.
Australia’s response to Tropical Cyclone Harold
On 10 April 2020, 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.