By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – The South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu which has no confirmed cases of coronavirus is set to ban travel to and from any country with more than 100 cases of COVID-19, as it prepares to go to the polls for a general election on Thursday.

The new restriction would include a ban on travel from regional heavyweight Australia, which has nearly 500 coronavirus cases, an official from Vanuatu’s National Novel Coronavirus Taskforce told Reuters.

Vanuatu, population 300,000, will hold a general election on March 19, with the electoral commission encouraging voters to stand two-meters apart and use hand sanitizer at polling booths.

“Many people are looking forward to the election and I don’t think COVID-19 will be an issue,” said Russel Tamata, communications officer for the Vanuatu taskforce.

An advisory expected to be released on Wednesday will warn Vanuatu citizens not to travel to, or transit through, a list of countries with 100 COVID-19 cases or more, said Tamata.

International flights wouldn’t be stopped, but arriving passengers would need to show a medical clearance proving they had undergone 14 days of quarantine before arriving in Vanuatu.

Multiple South Pacific island nations have restricted flights and banned cruise ships from ports for 60 days, hitting crucial tourism revenues in the region, after six COVID-19 cases were confirmed in the Pacific islands.

“This is going to be devastating for Pacific economies. Whether it’s aid, trade, migration or tourism, all those countries depend on major countries like Australia and China for their supply chains,” said Jonathan Pryke, director of the Australia-based Lowy Institute’s Pacific Islands program.

“They are using their relative isolation as a remote island as a strength to put the wall up. It makes sense given the fragility of their health systems.”

The Pacific region has recorded three coronavirus cases in French Polynesia and three in Guam – although most island nations cannot screen for the virus onshore which is potentially masking its spread.

The Post Courier newspaper in Papua New Guinea said the health minister had confirmed a man with a history of travel to Europe was being tested for COVID-19 after developing a fever.

Vanuatu is sending COVID-19 test samples to overseas laboratories and receiving results seven days later.

The island country expects to conduct the first tests onshore in a “few weeks”, said Posikai Samuel Tapo, director for Vanuatu’s health security services.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Michael Perry)