Possible flights to and from Fiji as New Zealand cases increase

Nukualofa, TONGA – July 1, 2020: 5:22pm (NUKU’ALOFA TIMES): Tonga’s Ministry of Health has identified some gaps in their preparation in case there is a case of COVID-19 introduced into the country.

Chief Executive Officer Dr Siale ‘Akauola made the comment Tuesday in response to questions raised by the Nuku’alofa Times.

Dr Siale said Tonga’s readiness to receive repatriated people from overseas remains at 95 to 96 percent.

“We have done a more detailed response planning exercise and noted that there are still gaps in the event that a covid19 case is introduced into the country and number of cases goes up,” Dr Siale said.

“There are still gaps in the surge capacity of the Ministry of Health.”

At the same time he revealed that the two drills held in preparation identified that there were issues to be rectified at the ‘quarantine facility’.

And because of the resurgence of COVID-19 cases in New Zealand Dr Siale said there is a possibility of repatriation flights starting from Fiji or one of the Pacific countries.

Government had marked New Zealand as the first destination for repatriation flights but that might have to change because of the current situation.

Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama announced two weeks ago that Fiji is opening for flights to and from Tonga, Tuvalu and Kiribati.

But Tongan Prime Minister Dr Pohiva Tuionetoa told the Tongan Parliament on Monday that the plan to bring in the first repatriation flight has now changed.

Dr Siale’s interview with Nuku’alofa Times:

NT: What is the percentage of Tonga’s preparedness now? And would you be able to explain what that means in layman’s term?

Dr Siale: I think this percentage readiness is too confusing to be used any more. We do now know that no country in the world is ever 100% ready for Covid19. Just look at the more affluent developed nations. They are all struggling with Covid19. Clearly, none of them was 100% ready. Tonga’s readiness to receive repatriated people from overseas remain at 95 to 96%. We have done a more detailed response planning exercise and noted that there are still gaps in the event that a covid19 case is introduced into the country and number of cases goes up. There are still gaps in the surge capacity of MOH.

NT: There have been two drills carried out? How did those drills go? Will there be another drill?

Dr Siale: Both drills went very well at the port of entry and transportation of passengers from airport to quarantine facility. However, at the debriefing, we identified several issues at the Quarantine Facility. This need to be rectified and we plan to do another drill specifically at the quarantine facility. Probably later in the week or next week.

NT: How soon can people expect the first repatriation flight to happen?

Dr Siale: Discussions still ongoing regarding this matter. Best not to give people (and yourself) false time!

NT: Where is that planned to come from? And will the numbers be limited to 50 passengers only?

Dr Siale: New Zealand was initially thought to be best place for first 50 but since resurgent of imported Covid19 and associated issues at quarantine facilities in that country – we are thinking again on possibility of another country in the Pacific to have first passengers from.

NT: Fiji last weekend declared that they will accept flights to and from Tonga, Kiribati and Tuvalu. What is the Task Force and Health view on that, especially with the new cases identified in New Zealand?

Dr Siale: Good news and it would be very sensible to consider Fiji as potential first option now to repatriate passengers from. But Cabinet will decide on this later.

NT: On the health restrictions — passengers will need to be checked before leaving the country they are in and will be quarantined in Tonga. Can you please confirm and explain the process there Dr?

Dr Siale: This is what we want to be done. To ensure that people arriving in Tonga have been tested negative for Covid19 and do not have any contact with known covid19 cases or have any symptoms of Covid19 before they board that plane. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Logistics required to make it all happen is difficult. At the same time a negative covid19 test does not provide 100% proof that someone is free of covid19 means. In other words, no amount of testing and health checks overseas can totally eliminate risk of Covid19 arriving in Tonga. That is why we still need to quarantine them on arrival and test them again when they leave the quarantine facility.

NT: Are there any other concerns from Health? Minister of Health was reported to be saying that
preparedness is focused on the case there is a COVID-19 export into the country. Why is that?

Dr Siale: It is a normal concern by any Minister of Health. Since no port of entry screening can totally eliminate risk of covid19 coming through. The real issue is when there is surge in those numbers within the country and there are gaps in our capacity to respond effectively. In other words, we hope for the best but plan for the worst. It is the worst case scenario that concerns the Minister. (PACNEWS)

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