SYDNEY (Reuters) – A delayed rotation of U.S. Marines to a defence base in Australia’s northern city of Darwin will go ahead based on strict adherence to COVID-19 measures, Australia’s defence minister said after speaking with her U.S. counterpart.
Up to 2,500 U.S. Marines had been scheduled to arrive in April, in a major defence alliance cooperation exercise, but this was postponed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The remote Northern Territory, which has recorded just 30 COVID-19 case, closed its borders to international and interstate visitors in March, and any arrivals must now undergo mandatory quarantine for 14 days.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said in a statement that she and U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper had agreed a modified rotation could proceed, with Marines required to undergo the 14-day quarantine and comply with other COVID-19 requirements.
The U.S. rotation may be reduced in size or duration upon advice from health authorities, a spokeswoman for Reynolds said.
Reynolds said the pandemic has “served to reinforce the importance of the alliance between our two nations”.
“Our defence organisations’ focus is now on maintaining force readiness and helping our partners in the Pacific and Southeast Asia,” she said.
Australian and U.S. defence science experts, as part of the Five Nation Research and Development Council, were cooperating on responses to the COVID-19 crisis, Reynolds said, including examining the survival of the virus on surfaces and the impact of temperature and humidity.
The council includes science and technology researchers in the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Britain, the nations that are also members of the Five Eyes intelligence grouping.
A major multinational air defence exercise, Exercise Pitch Black, due to be held in July, was cancelled in the Northern Territory because of coronavirus restrictions.
The Northern Territory has the lowest infection rate of any Australian state or territory, but also is home to vulnerable indigenous populations. It has begun to ease its coronavirus restrictions, and shops, restaurants and pubs will reopen next week.
Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Michael Perry
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