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The government of Papua New Guinea said on Tuesday it would restrict movement without imposing a full lockdown, as coronavirus infections in the Pacific country soared.

PNG on Tuesday recorded 82 positive cases from 91 tests processed in a day, leading the Australian state of Queensland to suspend charter flights from the OK Tedi copper and gold mine, one of the country’s biggest employers.

Of the most recent 500 swabs taken from PNG residents by Australian health workers, 250 of those came back positive, according to Queensland health officials.

James Marape, prime minister, warned that the country’s official total of 2,269 Covid-19 cases, including 26 deaths, was an undercount as it was based on those who showed up for testing.

Only 54,410 of PNG’s 9m people have been tested, said police Chief Superintendent Dominic Kakas, the country’s Covid-19 task force spokesman.

“Community transmission has taken place. It has broken loose. We need to contain it from further spreading,” Marape said.

“If we don’t [take a] proactive response to this, our health system will be clogged and we might not be able to sustain the outbreak that is taking place right now.”

He said health authorities were looking at “city by city or city and town, province by province, stopping people from moving in and out”.

Officials carry the coffin of former Papua New Guinea prime minister Sir Michael Somare during his funeral ceremony inside Parliament House in Port Moresby
Officials carry the coffin of former Papua New Guinea prime minister Sir Michael Somare during his funeral ceremony inside Parliament House in Port Moresby © AFP via Getty Images

The country’s maritime borders with Australia and the Solomon Islands have been closed.

Marape urged people to remain in their districts and villages. He said the police and military would ensure people and public transport follow public health measures.

There are concerns of a surge in cases after mass gatherings were held at the weekend to commemorate Sir Michael Somare, PNG’s first prime minister, who died last month.

Officials in Australia, which ran PNG affairs until independence in 1975, said they were monitoring the virus’s progress. Scott Morrison, Australian prime minister, said vaccines were being rushed to PNG to inoculate frontline health workers.

“I’m very concerned about the situation in PNG and we’re watching that very closely and actively,” Dr Paul Kelly, Australia’s chief medical officer, said on Tuesday.

He said vaccination has begun in the Torres Strait, which separates the two countries. “They’re currently vaccinating in Saibai Island, one of the islands in the Torres Strait very close to the PNG mainland,” Kelly said.

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