Tonga receives 'contactless' aid deliveries from UK and Australia

Naval ships deliver water, medicine and other relief without crew disembarking to prevent Covid infections on tsunami-hit islands

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British and Australian navy ships arrived in Tonga on Wednesday and are attempting to deliver aid without making contact with anybody ashore to avoid spreading the coronavirus in a nation that has never had an outbreak.

The danger of spreading the disease was underscored when about two dozen sailors aboard the Australian ship HMAS Adelaide were reported infected on Tuesday, raising fears they could bring the coronavirus to the small Pacific archipelago devastated by an undersea volcanic eruption and a tsunami on January 15.

Tonga has reported only one case of Covid-19 since the pandemic began and is one of the few countries that is completely virus free. Arrivals are typically required to quarantine for three weeks, which has complicated the international disaster response.

Britain said its ship the HMS Spey arrived with 30,000 litres of bottled water, medical supplies for more than 300 first aid kits and basic sanitation products. It said the ship's crew stayed on board and moved the supplies ashore by crane.

“The UK is a long-standing partner of the Pacific islands, and having the ship deployed in the Indo-Pacific meant that we could be there for Tonga in their hour of need, as the island begins to rebuild their homes and communities,” Minister for the Armed Forces James Heappey said.

The Australian Navy's 'HMAS Adelaide' docked at Vuna Wharf in Tonga's capital Nuku’alofa on January 26, 2022, to deliver aid after the January 15 eruption of a nearby underwater volcano. AFP

The Australian government said its ship completed the 3,300-kilometre voyage from Brisbane on Wednesday and would deliver supplies without contact with the local population to avoid infections.

“We appreciate the decision of the government of Tonga to enable HMAS Adelaide to dock and offload the humanitarian and medical supplies, and the high priority it has placed on Covid safety throughout the recovery process,” said the Australian government.

“The ship is undertaking an entirely contactless delivery of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief supplies.”

The ship was delivering a desalination plant to help to restore the drinking water supply, as well as helicopters and engineering equipment.

Australia said it was widening its disaster support to include restoration of power and communications.

Tongan authorities have been wary that accepting international aid could usher in a bigger disaster than the huge eruption of the volcano. The tsunami killed three people.

The HMS Adelaide is the second aid mission from Australia in which at least one crew member tested positive. A C-17 Globemaster military transport plane was earlier turned around in midflight after a person aboard was diagnosed with the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the US said it will provide an additional $2.5 million in humanitarian assistance to Tonga through the US Agency for International Development, following an initial pledge of $100,000.

Updated: January 27, 2022, 9:31 AM