Backpackers Tokyo

Picturesque Norfolk Island is dealing with its first outbreak of COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, which has presented challenges for the isolated community. 

Key points:

  • Norfolk Island's COVID-19 outbreak began two days before the Queensland government officially took over providing key services from New South Wales 
  • Visitation to Norfolk Island has been paused until January 27, when visitors will need to show a negative COVID-19 test on arrival
  • The island's only health system is small, with just a handful of beds

The outbreak has also proven to be the first test for the Queensland government, which took over the island's health and education services from New South Wales at the start of the year.

An external territory of Australia, Norfolk Island is located about 1,600 kilometres east of mainland New South Wales in the South Pacific Ocean, between New Zealand and New Caledonia.

About 2,000 people live on the island, which boasts stunning natural beauty and a rich colonial history.

Norfolk Island was the first Australian community to close its borders in March 2020, due to COVID-19 to protect its vulnerable community and prepare its small health clinic. 

There have now been 65 cases of COVID-19 on the island since recording its first case on December 30.

The sun sets over the water off Norfolk Island. On the land in the foreground, historic buildings face the ocean.

Norfolk Island, located in the South Pacific Ocean, has sprawling views and a rich colonial history.( ABC News: Nathan Morris )

The island is averaging about four new cases a day, with 43 cases currently active, and a handful of patients deemed 'high-risk'.

Norfolk Island Administrator Eric Hutchinson said no patients have needed to be hospitalised, and the local health service had been coping after having almost two years to prepare.

"I guess it was an inevitability that it was going to happen at some point in time," he said.

"There's nobody in the hospital and I guess that's the metric that we're increasingly looking at in terms of whether the health system can sustain itself or not."

The island's only health facility is small — with two emergency bays and six inpatient beds — and is joined to a residential aged care service.

Portrait photo of Norfolk Island administrator Eric Hutchinson.

Norfolk Island administrator Eric Hutchinson is the Australian government's senior representative on the island.( ABC: Claudia Jambor )

Mr Hutchinson said the health service was in need of an upgrade.

"The truth of the matter is that there is limited capacity here, it's an ageing facility," he said.

"Undoubtedly, it's a facility that will be replaced by the Commonwealth over the next couple of years, remembering that the Commonwealth has only had responsibility for Norfolk Island since 2015.

"Prior to that, there was limited self-government on the island.

"But that is not a reflection at all of the really good people, and qualified people that work in that facility."

The acting general manager of Norfolk Island Regional Council, Phil Reid, said the biggest challenge was dealing with the virus on the island for the first time.

Phil in an office.

Norfolk Island Regional Council's Phil Reid says council has been adapting in order to maintain critical services.( Supplied: Phil Reid )

"With COVID arriving here, the community have had to change their behaviour, and learn to live with the restrictions in the public health advice," he said.

"Things like mask-wearing, social distancing and sanitising is obviously part and parcel of how we have to live here on Norfolk."

He said the council has had to revisit its continuity planning and adapt in order to continue to deliver critical services such as electricity, waste management and telecommunication services.

First test for new services provider

The outbreak on Norfolk Island came two days before the Queensland government officially took over providing state services for the island on January 1, 2022.

Last year, the NSW government walked away from running Norfolk Island's school and health system after the federal government revoked the island's self-ruling status in 2015.

The Queensland takeover means the state will assist the Norfolk Island Health and Residential Aged Care Service and Norfolk Island Central School with service and curriculum delivery, and the Commonwealth will fully cover the state's costs.

Students attending Norfolk Island Central School will transition to Queensland's curriculum and also have their school year delayed in line with Queensland, with term one now starting on February 7, due to the Omicron outbreak. 

The exception will be Year 11 and 12 students, who will be able to continue the remainder of their schooling under the New South Wales curriculum to limit disruption to their chosen subjects.

In a statement, Metro North Health said it was supporting its colleagues on Norfolk Island to assist with the current COVID-19 situation.

"Metro North Health has been providing assistance to the Norfolk Island Health and Residential Aged Care Service Medical Superintendent, with daily clinical reviews of high-risk COVID patients and advice on appropriate public health measures by an Infectious Diseases Medical Consultant and Public Health Medical Specialist," a spokesperson said.

"Metro North Health will continue to support Norfolk Island as required, with medical evacuations to the mainland set to continue if needed."

Delightful view of two offshore islands over a lush, green foreshore that features a grassy clearing and a forest of trees

Data shows more than 95 per cent of Norfolk Island's population is fully vaccinated.( Flickr: Steve Daggar )

Mr Hutchinson said it had been a smooth transition, with Queensland Health on hand to help the island during its outbreak.

"It's been a process that you would have liked another six months [to prepare for] but there's been a lot of hard work done by a lot of people behind the scenes that has got us to a point now where we are ready," he said.

"And we needed to be ready as we had our first COVID case here on Norfolk Island unfortunately.

"But with the help of Metro North in Brisbane, the medicos here on Norfolk Island have had access to specialist advice and support from Queensland since the first of January, which has been wonderful."

Tourists with health conditions urged to reconsider travel

Visitors to the island have been paused due to the outbreak but travel for tourists who return a negative PCR or RAT test prior to their arrival is set to resume on January 27.

Mr Hutchinson has appealed to Health Minister Greg Hunt to allocate some supplies of rapid antigen tests for the island, and was urging anyone with pre-existing health conditions to reconsider travelling to the island.

Norfolk Island town centre

Norfolk Island town centre during the first COVID outbreak.( Supplied: Sharon Nicol )

"There is a limited capacity in terms of what this island can provide at this point in time with the additional drain on resources," he said.

The latest federal government data shows more than 95 per cent of the eligible population aged 15 years and over on Norfolk Island are fully vaccinated.

Business Council of Norfolk Island president Sharon Nicol said rough estimates reveal the tourism sector was losing about $1.35 million a week due to the visitor ban.

However, she said, she felt the right balance had been struck with the visitor pause between protecting the community and restarting a vital economic driver.

"We're acutely aware that any lengthy pause has an ongoing impact because our bookings in our accommodation, in our car hire, at our restaurants, things like that, are in advance for tourism," she said.

"When people lose confidence in their ability to come somewhere for a holiday, or whether they'll be able to be let back into their own state or back home, then they lose confidence in that destination or that location.

"So our job, or task, in the future is to make sure that we still instil that confidence with people coming in, with tourists and visitors coming to the island."

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Posted  5h ago 5 hours ago Fri 14 Jan 2022 at 8:11pm, updated  33m ago 33 minutes ago Sat 15 Jan 2022 at 1:36am