‘It’s real for us’: PNG COVID threat at Cape York’s door
HUNDREDS of unchecked small boat movements between Papua New Guinea and Australian islands in the Torres Strait have leaders on high alert and calling for tighter border controls.
PNG declared a state of emergency as coronavirus cases doubled to 62 in the three days to last Sunday.
Torres Shire Council Mayor Vonda Malone said there was real concern of a breakout in the Torres Strait, including Saibai Island which lies just 4km off the PNG coast.
"It's escalating in PNG and Port Moresby and we are watching how PNG is going to retain it," she said.
She also questioned the level of screening and suspected the real number of PNG cases could be much higher. "(There's) great concerns from the community particularly from elderly people," she said.
She said if COVID-19 reached Thursday Island it could spread to vulnerable Cape York communities.
Ms Malone urged tourists not to visit "unless they had to" and has called on Brisbane to allow island communities to go back into lockdown.
"We are calling on the premier to revisit the position and give us some authority to go back," she said. "We don't have any power at the moment, we are just waiting for something to happen. We feel unheard and frustrated."
Inhabitants of 13 PNG villages permitted free movement privileges under the Torres Strait Treaty have been banned from traditional movements until further notice following a decision by Torres Strait Island Regional Council.
TSIRC Mayor Phillemon Mosby said the council had made requests to Australian Border Force to step up patrols.
"Restrictions should remain in place regarding the Torres Strait Treaty, however they should also be tightened at a state level given the concerning rise of cases in our southern states," he said.
Despite increased patrols Gulf of Carpentaria Volunteer Marine Rescue Officer Peter Graham warned restrictions on small boat movements was almost impossible to police.
"There is a lot of going to and fro for weddings and funerals. It's controlled a little bit by so-called immigration officers but there is a lot that you just couldn't possibly keep up with," he said.
"There's just too many dinghies running around up there.
Ms Malone flagged a cross border fishery in the Torres Strait as a major concern and council had "pushed back" on pressure to keep the fishery open.
"(But) we do have some level of assurance and there has been some strong messages to PNG," she said.
Originally published as 'It's real for us': PNG COVID threat at Cape York's door