The United Nations is preparing for distanced relief operations in Tonga to avoid a COVID-19 outbreak in the Pacific island nation that is reeling under the impact of a volcanic eruption and tsunami, an official said on Wednesday.
All the homes on one of Tonga's small outer islands have been destroyed and three people have so far been confirmed dead, .
With communications badly hampered by the severing of an undersea cable, information on the scale of the devastation so far has mostly come from reconnaissance aircraft.
On Wednesday, New Zealand's foreign ministry said it will take at least a month to repair the cable.
Strict COVID-free policy
Fiji-based United Nations co-ordinator Jonathan Veitch said in a media briefing that the agency will conduct most operations remotely, and may not send personnel to the island.
"We believe that we will be able to send flights with supplies. We're not sure that we can send flights with personnel and the reason for this is that Tonga has a very strict COVID-free policy," Mr Veitch said.
Tonga is one of the few countries that is COVID-19 free and an outbreak there would be disastrous, he said. The tiny island nation has 90 per cent immunisation coverage both in adults and also younger people over the age of 12, Mr Veitch said.
"They've been very cautious about opening their borders like many Pacific islands, and that's because of the history of disease outbreaks in the Pacific which has wiped out societies here."
A composite satellite image shows the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai underwater volcano before and after its eruption. Source: COPERNICUS SENTINEL/EU
The UN has 23 people on the ground plus other international NGOs to help with relief efforts, Mr Veitch said.
He said the World Health Organization would start a discussion with the government "in a cautious manner, but we won't be doing anything to threaten the safety of their protocols and the safety of their population in terms of COVID."
The Tongan government has started evacuating stranded residents in some outlying areas. Water supply has been "seriously affected" by volcanic ash and is a major concern, the prime minister's office said in its statement late on Tuesday.
Clearing the airport runway of ash is a priority for the government. The archipelago's main Fua’amotu International Airport was not damaged but the ash was having to be manually removed.
"We thought that it would be operational yesterday, but it hasn't been fully cleared yet because more ash has been falling," Mr Veitch said.
Photo taken of Uiha Island, Tonga, taken during a mission by a Royal Australian Air Force P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft following the eruption. Source: Australian Defence Force
Tsunami waves reaching up to 15 metres hit the Ha’apia island group, where Mango is located, and the west coast of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, the prime minister's office said. Residents were being moved to evacuation centres as 56 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged on that coast.
Atata and Mango are between about 50 km and 70 km from the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai volcano, which sent tsunami waves across the Pacific Ocean when it erupted with a blast heard 2,300 km away in New Zealand.
An Australian naval ship has left Sydney and is set to arrive in Brisbane on Wednesday to be loaded with humanitarian and disaster relief supplies, along with critical equipment to help recovery efforts.
It's expected the voyage to Tonga will take five days, and the ship will serve as a base for relief work.
The Australian mission will also help repair the damaged underwater telecommunication cables that were damaged in the disaster, and set up a temporary satellite system.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says Australia is open to providing more support to Tonga in the wake of the volcano disaster.
Mr Morrison is hoping to speak with his Tongan counterpart Siaosi Sovaleni on Wednesday, but communication with the Pacific island nation has been difficult.
"We'll run through whatever else they might need," Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday.
"Our defence forces have stood up their operation and are deploying as necessary and as directed... We feel deeply for our family in Tonga."