Australian Aid Ship for Tonga Suffers COVID Outbreak on Board

Australian troops board HMAS Adelaide in preparation for departure to Tonga, Jan. 21 (ADF)

Published Jan 25, 2022 9:35 PM by The Maritime Executive

An Australian amphib carrying relief cargo to Tonga has reported nearly two dozen cases of coronavirus on board, temporarily slowing its mission.

HMAS Adelaide is a big-deck amphib with a well deck, an onboard hospital and room for 1,000 troops, the kind of vessel that comes in useful in a natural disaster. She is carrying heavy equipment, medical supplies and helicopters to support the logistics and distribution effort in Tonga.

“The forces on board Adelaide are tailored to the requests of the Government of Tonga and include provision of clean water, the movement of stores and reconnaissance,” said task force commander Major General Scott Winter. “Adelaide’s desalination capability can produce a significant amount of clean water, which is one of the first priorities.”

All of the embarked troops aboard Adelaide had a negative PCR test before boarding, and all are fully vaccinated. The task force set up an ongoing COVID testing regime to ensure that the risk of infection was managed. 

Unfortunately, shortly before arrival in Tonga, the onboard testing regime detected 23 positive cases among the crew. 

“We have a vessel obviously that we’re very keen, as quickly as possible, to dock in Tonga so that we can get those supplies off and provide the support to people,” Australian minister of defense Peter Dutton said at a press conference Tuesday. “Under no circumstance will we compromise the health and well-being of those Tongans, who have already had a concerted effort against the virus."

The crew of Adelaide could potentially deliver supplies onto the pier without coming into contact with personnel on shore, Dutton said. Every effort will be made to keep the virus off the island: Tonga has so far avoided the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to its remote location and its rigorous quarantine policies. 

As of Wednesday afternoon, Adelaide remained waiting in Tonga's lagoon, just off the main port of Nuku'alofa. 

The Royal New Zealand Navy fleet oiler HMNZS Aotearoa and patrol ship HMNZS Wellington have already arrived in Tonga. Aotearoa has a large desalination plant and is alongside the pier, providing drinking water for public distribution.

Wellington has surveyed the bottom of the harbor at nearby 'Eua Island for safey, and her Seasprite helicopter has been conducting reconnaissance flights to assess damage and plan for future operations. The sealift ship HMNZS Canterbury is under way to join the task force, carrying more helicopters, construction equipment, combat engineers and aid supplies. She is due to arrive early next week. 

HMNZS Wellington (bottom) and HMNZS Aotearoa at Tonga, Jan. 24 (NZDF)