Australia says China should allow in WHO Covid investigators ‘without delay’

The Australian government has called on China to allow a visit by World Health Organization experts investigating how the coronavirus pandemic started, insisting the country should grant them visas “without delay”.

Canberra raised its concerns on Wednesday over reports that Chinese authorities had blocked the arrival of a WHO team investigating the early cases of Covid-19 in Wuhan.

With China arguing the team’s visas had not yet been approved, even as some members of the group were on their way to the country, the development has heightened fears among Australian politicians about whether the WHO mission will be able to uncover answers needed to better prepare the world for the next pandemic.

The Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, said she hoped “that the necessary permissions for the WHO team’s travel to China can be issued without delay”.

Speaking after months of rocky relations between the two countries, partly triggered by Australia’s calls for such an investigation, Payne said Australia had “consistently sought transparency in relation to the origins of, and responses to the coronavirus, as have other countries”.

“The WHO-convened scientific study is an important part of this work and we look forward to the findings from the international field mission to China,” she said.

“During this global pandemic that has affected all countries, international cooperation and partnerships will maximise our ability to respond, and to equip us for the next pandemic.”

The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, was direct in his criticism of China’s actions on Wednesday, saying the country would be wrong to block the entry of the WHO investigators.

“Well, the fact is that it’s unacceptable,” Albanese told reporters in Sydney.

“Not just Australia, but the whole world needs this investigation to happen. And it should happen openly and transparently. And that should be facilitated by China.”

Rex Patrick, the independent senator for South Australia, said the obstruction of the WHO investigators reflected the Chinese Communist party’s “paranoia about international scrutiny”.

“I’m disappointed but not surprised by China blocking access to WHO officials investigating coronavirus. Openness and transparency is not in the CCP’s DNA,” Patrick said.

He said all good global citizens should be supporting the WHO’s investigation, which was not about blame but learning the lessons from a pandemic that was having a “massive global impact”.

But the independent senator also took a swipe at the Morrison government for “improperly cloaking our own Covid response in cabinet secrecy”, saying that had undermined Australia’s ability to press China to display the required openness.

Comment has been sought from the Chinese embassy in Canberra.

The government attracted China’s ire over its early public calls for a global coronavirus inquiry, with Beijing later taking a series of trade actions against Australian exports and rebuffing calls for talks between ministers.

Last week Guardian Australia reported Australia was planning to use its final months on a top World Health Organization board to press for the investigation to remain “robust, independent and comprehensive”.

But the NSW Coalition senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells – a China hawk who has long argued the inquiry had been watered down – said no amount of “monitoring” by Australia would “preclude this ending up being a Sir Humphrey exercise”.

“The latest move by the communist regime in China to block the WHO team is not surprising,” she said on Wednesday.

“China would not have voted for the watered down World Health Assembly motion unless it was able to ‘manage’ the process and ‘control’ the outcome. It was never going to be ‘robust’ or ‘independent’.”

Related: Australia ‘not for turning’ in dispute with China, UK envoy George Brandis says

China ended up joining with most nations to support an “independent evaluation” motion drafted by the European Union and co-sponsored by Australia in May.

The consensus motion allowed for an independent evaluation to be launched by the WHO director general and to focus on lessons learned from the handling of the outbreaks, rather than the origins of the coronavirus.

The independent evaluation panel, co-chaired by the former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark and former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is due to provide an interim report to the WHO’s executive board this month before finalising its work in May – just before Australia’s current term expires.

The WHO has separately convened a global study of the origins. An Australian health department spokesperson said 10 international experts – including Prof Dominic Dwyer, an infectious diseases specialist from the University of Sydney –was “working on this scientific study in collaboration with Chinese scientists”.

China has rejected claims aired by the Trump administration that the coronavirus could have leaked out of a laboratory in Wuhan. China has also denied claims of cover-ups soon after the outbreak was first detected in Wuhan.

Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old former lawyer and citizen journalist who was arrested in May while reporting from Wuhan, was last week sentenced to four years in jail.

Morrison has repeatedly said Australia would not “trade away” its sovereignty or yield to economic pressure from the country’s largest trading partner.

Apart from calling for a global investigation in April – a proposal he described as “unremarkable” – Morrison also floated the idea of giving the WHO weapons inspector-style powers. In October the foreign affairs department secretary, Frances Adamson, told Senate estimates she had first heard about that idea “when it was said in public”.

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