“That is good news and we are very happy about that,” MEIDECC CEO, Paula Ma’u said.
The 39 seasonal workers staying at Taliai Military Camp were tested for COVID-19, while the other 111 passengers (including another 31 seasonal workers) staying at the Tanoa Hotel were also tested.
Nineteen front line workers are also staying at the Tanoa Hotel and 16 at the Kupesi Hotel, near the military camp, for the 14 days of quarantine.
Ma’u said the selection of future passengers to be repatriated to Tonga, would continue to be chosen by category or groups such as medical staff, public servants, diplomatic passport holders, students, seasonal workers, and stranded passengers.
“So, the 150 were selected from each category to ensure fair distribution.”
He explained that medical workers, armed forces, and police were among those selected in the recent repatriation flight because as frontliners they are required back in Tonga to reinforce the existing capacity.
Ma’u said once the passenger list was finalised on 29 July, they contacted each passenger so they could organise themselves and get tested for COVID-19 before the flight.
Passengers were also selected according to their personal circumstances and the difficulties they were experiencing.
He said one such person was a nurse who was in New Zealand for medical reasons.
“That was a very sad story. The nurse went to New Zealand for an operation but things didn’t turn out and [she] wanted to come back home. Unfortunately, the person passed away before the flight. The death was not because of COVID-19 but other causes.”
The nurse's body was brought back on the repatriation flight for burial.
Officials have come across other challenges with the selection list with changes taking place even right before the plane departed.
Ma’u explained one passenger turned up to the airport without being tested for COVID-19 even though she was advised, and another one did not want to come back.
“We can’t have a reserve list because they have to be tested [for COVID-19]. There are a few issues around that.”
He said that repatriated passengers must have a return ticket to Tonga or pay for a new ticket, while government pays for quarantine.
Another challenge that is limiting the number of repatriated passengers is the availability of quarantine rooms, which is at capacity currently.
Other accommodation being looked at is the ‘Atele Indoor Stadium, but Ma’u said it depends on whether it meets Health’s criteria such as people being able to practice social distancing.
“Makeke is also a possible location. It’s a Mormon church camping area, out near Vaini.”
Currently, over 2800 people are registered on the government’s repatriation list wanting to return to Tonga.
Around 1800 are in New Zealand, 500 in Australia and the rest in other places such as the U.S, Europe and the Pacific such as Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Samoa, Niue, and Tahiti.
“We have some from PNG but the cases are spiking there.”
Although Tongans are in other Pacific Island countries that are still COVID-19 free, “the challenge is how they are going to get to Tonga”.
A charter flight to bring Tongans from the Solomon Islands and other Pacific Islands is still being discussed due to challenging logistics.
There are also around 5,000 seasonal workers that work in New Zealand and Australia.
Ma’u said Australia was considered for repatriation but there has been a spike in Victoria. Right now, repatriation flights from New Zealand is the focus as it is a low risk country.
The next flight is booked tentatively on 25 August, pending approval from Health.
As for residents in Tonga who want to take a trip to New Zealand for business or personal reasons, Paula said they must be a New Zealand citizen or resident.
However, to return to Tonga, they have to register on the government's repatriation registration.
“But we have to first bring back the people currently on the list,” he said.