The French Pacific island group of New Caledonia, up to now Covid-free, will be under strict lockdown from midnight Monday, following the detection of nine cases of coronavirus infection among non-quarantined travellers arriving from Wallis and Futuna. The measures will remain in place for at least two weeks.
The two Pacific Ocean archipelagos of New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna have, up to now, been among the few places on the planet to avoid coronavirus infection.
The outbreak was detected after a school headteacher fell ill on the Wallis and Futuna islands, leading authorities to screen for cases.
"According to the first indications, the patient developed symptoms in mid-February and could have been infectious in Wallis and Futuna from the end of January," the head of the local government in New Caledonia, Thierry Santa, told reporters.
The patient is reportedly in a serious condition and has been transported to a hospital in Noumea, according to local sources.
Travel between the two French territories had previously been unrestricted, while anyone arriving from elsewhere had to undergo a strict 14-day quarantine in a hotel.
While the precise details on the lockdown regulations have yet to be confirmed, the island group's High Commissioner, Laurent Prevost, has warned that conditions will be similar to those imposed under the first general Covid lockdown, in March 2020.
All schools will be closed on Monday. Island residents will be obliged to carry passes justifying their appearance in public.
The high commissioner has recognised that this new lockdown will add to the difficulties of local businesses, but has assured those concerned that the French government is aware of the problems and "is fully mobilised to help New Caledonia".
Vaccination drive to continue, accelerate if possible
All those who have returned to New Caledonia from Wallis and Futuna since 25 January have been ordered to self-isolate and contact the health authorities.
The emergence of the coronavirus in Wallis and Futuna remains unexplained.
A new helpline number has had to be put in place after the emergency switchboard was swamped with calls.
So far, nine cases have been identified. The island authorities say the strict lockdown measures are being demanded in order to stop any further spread of the disease. All flights between the two island groups have been suspended.
The high commissioner has insisted that the vaccination campaign will continue, or even accelerate where local conditions allow. "We will be making an additional effort to reach those who are most vulnerable," he said.
5210 have so far received the first dose, while 1603 have received both doses.