New report says too early to open borders to flights because of low level of preparedness

Despite the promise of a repatriation flight from New Zealand to Tonga within the next few weeks, there is still no sign of a trans-Pacific travel bubble opening up.

Tonga has brought back one flight from Fiji and other nations have also begun repatriation flights.

However, as Kaniva News reported yesterday, the Tongan government believes that keeping the kingdom free of the Covid-19 virus has to be the priority.

Ministry of Health CEO, Dr Siale ‘Akau’ola said Tongan authorities had to prepare properly and make sure all steps were completed to minimize risk.

Now a new report says it is too early to open the borders because the risk of Covid-19 remains high.

According to a report by Solomon Islands journalist Ben Bilua in the University of the South Pacific’s journalism student newspaper Wansolwara, the  chief executive officer of the South Pacific Tourism Organisation, Chris Cocker, said the level of health preparedness was below what was needed.

Cocker said there was a shortage of ventilators and testing facilities in the islands.

“The majority of our Pacific Island countries are just not ready and capable to address Covid-19 if the borders are reopened in this case,” Cocker said.

The Association of South Pacific Airlines CEO, George Faktaufon, said it was too early to reopen borders.

“We just don’t have the facilities to control a pandemic in our islands,” he said.

Faktaufon wants to see urgent talks between governments and airlines to make sure airlines survive the crisis.

The future of airline travel in Tonga is already in doubt with the collapse of Real Tonga.

While both executives are cautious about the dangers of moving too quickly to open borders, they say planning for a return to tourism must start now.

“For us, the planning is important because we just can’t pick up the aeroplanes and start flying when the borders open and we find this to be the most difficult part,” Faktaufon said.

Lack of regional co-ordination on some of the issues such as security requirements and quarantine requirement were aviation’s great concern, according to Faktaufon.

However, business leaders such as  Pacific Islands Private Sector Organisation chair  Stephen Lyon said it was possible to open borders soon and keep people safe.

He warned that the economic impact of Covid-19 would get worse and could be long lasting.

Around the world commentators are predicting it could take a decade or even a generation to recover from the economic damage caused by the pandemic.

“We are a very remote part of the world and it will take us longer to recover economically than other places simply because of our limited market access and our remoteness,” Lyon said.

“We have got to look at this idea of open borders and when we can get open borders for trade and get the movement of people and goods occurring again.

“I see no reason why processes cannot be put in place relatively quickly. If there is  no community transmission open up for the movement of people and trade between Covid-19 free states of the Pacific,” he said.