There have been 23 cases of COVID-19 recorded among the crew of HMAS Adelaide, which departed Brisbane on Friday to deliver humanitarian aid to virus-free Tonga.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton said the government was working with Tongan authorities to keep the boat at sea and make sure there was no threat to the Pacific nation.
Tonga, with a population of about 105,000, is yet to confirm a case of the virus throughout the two-year pandemic.
“They need the aid desperately but they don’t want the risk of COVID,” Mr Dutton told Sky News on Tuesday.
“We will work through all of that as quickly as we can.”
There are more than 600 crew onboard the Adelaide.
Mr Dutton said aid had already been sent via C-17 planes and contactless delivery remained an option. New Zealand has also delivered aid by air and sea.
“We are not going to put the Tongan population at risk,” he said.
Mr Dutton added it was about balancing the quick delivery of aid to the ravaged nation, following this month’s volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunami, and not exposing the vulnerable population to COVID.
“It may mean [the ship] is able to dock and we provide that support and then move on from there,” he said.
“It may mean that they stand off and wait a number of days but we don’t have personnel on the ground. It’s a matter of dropping the aid and providing that support.”
It’s the second aid shipment from Australia where a positive case has turned up, with a C-17 plane turned around mid-flight after someone was diagnosed with COVID-19.