Another Kiwi in self isolation wonders at border checks designed to contain coronavirus. David Williams reports

The prospect of school closures prompted Stephen Simmons, a New Zealander who lives in Sydney, to fly to Christchurch, where his son is at boarding school.

But he was shocked at the measures to contain coronavirus taken at the international airport, the country’s second-biggest.

Simmons describes a chaotic scene of hundreds of people being handed out confusing Ministry of Health forms, and pens that might have been used by other people. There was a single writing bench, that could accommodate six people at a push, he says – a situation he describes as “utterly disgraceful, pathetic and incredibly amateur”.

The form itself, which looked like it had been ripped into smaller pieces using a ruler, asked if the person arriving came from a ‘C1’ or ‘C2’ country, with no explanation of what that meant, and said a person meeting certain conditions “should” self isolate, not that they were required to do so.

Simmons says staff asking questions about self isolation weren’t wearing masks or gloves, and didn’t seem to have sanitiser handy. They had to talk to the side of a protective screen to be heard. The whole thing seems a box-ticking exercise, he says.

“It gives you an impression of complete and utter incompetence, complete lack of professionalism, and no forethought or planning.”.

Does he think they’re going to be effective in containing the virus? “We haven’t got a hope in hell. In my view, now I reflect back on the events, I think that was an absolute breeding ground to transmit it further.”

At a press briefing last week, director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield said border restrictions were designed to lower the risk of a community outbreak of the virus. “What we have been able to do in NZ is buy ourselves time to look at what’s successful and apply the right interventions at the right time.”

In the past week, thousands of people in this country have been tested for Covid-19 and the number of confirmed cases has gone from eight to 66. Community transmission has not been ruled out in two cases.

(Reporting on border checks has been mixed. Otago Daily Times reporter Luisa Girao was asked if she had a self-isolation plan and was told she could be deported for not complying. RNZ’s Max Towle, meanwhile, said he expected a grilling or a conversation with a nurse. “I would have liked to have been told what, if any, policing there would be of self-isolation.”)

Border restrictions now tighter

Simmons flew into Christchurch on an Emirates flight last Tuesday afternoon. Two days later, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern closed the border to non-citizens or non-residents, after concerns that tourists weren’t following an edict to self isolate for 14 days, which came into effect from midnight on March 15.

Authorities said last week they would deport two tourists from southeast Asia who refused to self isolate.

It’s not clear if airport forms,checks or facilities have improved since then. Newsroom asked the Ministry of Health if the measures Simmons described were good enough and if any improvements had been made since then.

The Ministry’s communications manager pointed to comments on border protection measures made by director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield at daily news conferences. It was suggested this reporter attend Sunday afternoon’s briefing in Wellington to ask questions of Bloomfield directly, but that wasn’t possible considering your correspondent is based in Christchurch. Also, Ardern has asked the public to limit non-essential domestic travel.

On March 18, Bloomfield said tourists were clear about what was expected of them. “Now as they come into the country, health officials are requiring them to show evidence that they have very firm plans for self isolation when they arrive.”

Yvonne Densem, the communications manager for Christchurch Airport, says the airport company isn’t involved in Covid-19 border checks – that they take place in a Customs-controlled area in conjunction with Ministry of Health. Customs didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“What can you do? It hasn’t really been well thought out.” – Stephen Simmons

Simmons drove some 300km south to self isolate at a holiday home at Lake Ohau, in the Mackenzie Basin. He says the quarantine restrictions are flawed.

He had to be taken by van, with other people, to collect his car, which was in storage at the airport. He also visited three different Christchurch supermarkets to get enough food for the two weeks of isolation. He also had to put petrol in his car.

“What can you do? It hasn’t really been well thought out,” he says.

He tried to do the right thing, he says, by keeping his distance from people and not touching surfaces. “But I’m sure there’s plenty of people that aren’t.”

The form handed to him at the airport said he would be contacted by the Ministry of Health within four days, but he was still waiting for the call – maybe because he’s on an overseas mobile phone. (To be fair, the form provides phone numbers for those not contacted within four days.)

Simmons says the border checks were “amateur and ill-planned and have potentially increased the spread of the virus exponentially”. Officials should have been planning them for some time, he says. “And if they haven’t, then shame on them for not being prepared.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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