The Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments have established a series of biosecurity zones in a bid to protect remote NT communities from COVID-19.

In a statement issued Thursday, Chairman of the Northern Land Council, Samuel Bush-Blanasi said the Council has been “getting calls for weeks now from Traditional Owners and community members right across the NLC area.”

“They want to stop people coming in from outside. These Biosecurity Zones or ‘bubbles’ will help slow the spread of COVID out bush and give us more time to get more people their second and third jabs,” he said.

“We also have to get vaccinations for our kids five years old and up. School is back and they need to be vaccinated.”

While travel into and out of the zones will be restricted, people will be free to move within each zone and public roads, freehold land and pastoral leaseholds are excluded.

“You can move around inside your own Biosecurity Zone but you can’t leave it without an exemption.”

“This means that in Beswick and Barunga area where I am from, people will be able to travel from Beswick/Wugularr to Barunga or Bulman or Manyallaluk but not to Katherine or Mataranka,” said Mr Bush-Blanasi.

“That’s the same for people in Katherine or Darwin – they won’t be able to travel into one of the Biosecurity Zone areas.”

There were over 6,500 active COVID cases in the Territory as for 2 February, with more than 1,100 new cases recorded in the previous 24 hours.

There were a number of cases reported on 2 February in communities now under lock-in restrictions: 1 case in Ampilatwatja 2 cases in Milikapiti 14 cases in Galiwin’ku 23 cases in Milingimbi 18 cases in Palumpa 11 cases in Lajamanu.

Late last week the Central Land Council, Congress Aboriginal Health Service and the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory (AMSANT), representing thousands of Traditional Owners, and the Territory’s frontline medical services, urged NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner to “act urgently” to lock down central Australia.

In a letter to the Chief Minister, they wrote: “We have been advocating continuously for firm action to slow the outbreak since it began in the early days of 2022. However, our requests have been ignored, or action taken too late or on too small a scale to make a real difference.”

“There has been a significant failure by government agencies in Central Australia to put into practice the plans agreed with your government before the outbreak.

“This has directly led to Covid spreading out of control in the Aboriginal communities of Central Australia and beyond… This is our last chance to flatten the curve of new infections and hospitalisations and save lives that will otherwise be lost,” the letter said.

On 28 January, Guardian Australia reported the case of a resident of the remote community of Yuendumu who was pleading with the Northern Territory government to provide a local quarantine facility after her COVID-positive elderly relative had to sleep outside on the veranda and spend three days under a tree in order to safely isolate from the rest of the family.

The Guardian also reported that community groups in Yuendumu expressed frustration that a group of people taken into quarantine were “unexpectedly” sent home on 16 January and subsequently tested positive for Covid-19.

Mr Bush-Blanasi noted on Thursday that while there will be exemptions to the zones, people will need an exemption form and a negative rapid antigen test (RAT) before they travel, adding that anyone with COVID “will have to isolate and stay in quarantine.”

All essential services will be able to leave and enter “under strict COVID Safe Plans” so that essential services like health, police, fuel and food to communities are maintained, the NLC statement said.

People with medical or other emergencies are automatically exempted to travel to hospital, for example, for treatment and to return.

The zones will be in place for at least two weeks, and their boundaries may be varied depending on the spread of COVID and progress with vaccinations and booster shots.

“Nobody is safe unless you are double vaccinated with a booster,” said Mr Bush-Blanasi.

A Northern Territory health department spokesperson told the National Indigenous Times that more than 95 per cent of Territorians aged 16 years and over have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 35 per cent of Territorians aged 18 and over have received a booster dose since appointments were made available in November.

“Territorians can book to get a COVID-19 vaccine at NT Vaccination Centres in Darwin, Palmerston, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek, Katherine and Nhulunbuy,” she said.

“Vaccines are also available participating GP clinics, respiratory clinics, pharmacies and Aboriginal Health Clinics and NT Health has a mobile COVID-19 vaccine clinic in the Top End Region.”

The spokesperson added that NT Health has “actively engaged with Territorians to encourage uptake of the vaccine including with all Aboriginal communities.”

They said the department had delivered “tailored education programs, community information sessions and mobilising immunisation teams to complete visits to assist local healthcare teams.”

“Information has also been provided to Aboriginal communities in language and through utilising community champions where possible. Visits are ongoing to remote communities to provide booster doses and vaccination for children.”

“A number of public health measures are in place across the NT to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading,” she said.

“These include lock-in restrictions for Ampilatwatja, Milikapiti, Galiwin’ku, Milingimbi, Palumpa and Lajamanu, a Territory-wide mask mandate (indoors and outdoors) and the Territory Vaccine Pass.”

By Giovanni Torre