Public health experts believe the rapid pace of Covid-19 beyond our country’s borders means returning New Zealanders pose a big risk to the country.

However, those returning home over the next few days won’t automatically be placed under a supervised quarantine.

Otago University Department of Public Health Professor Michael Baker pointed to the rapid spread of Covid-19 in countries like the US as presenting a risk that New Zealand clearly had to mitigate. 

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield acknowledged the current crop of returnees represented a greater threat than those who flew back earlier.

However, New Zealanders landing here in the next few days will not be be placed under a supervised quarantine unless they have detectable symptoms, according to Police Commissioner Mike Bush.

Bush said 360 New Zealanders who arrived at Auckland Airport on Thursday morning were triaged and asked a set of questions. They were also checked for symptoms of the disease. Almost half of them were taken to a quarantine facility.

Eight people were put into supervised quarantine at a nearby hotel because they showed symptoms. A further 160 were taken to those same hotels because they didn’t have a good enough plan for how they would self-isolate, he said.

So why not quarantine them all?

Baker said New Zealand was in a very different situation now than a week ago.

We were now in a stricter lockdown than other countries around the world who used the same term, he said.

“Lockdown in Australia looks very different. Lockdown in India looks very different,” Baker said.

“The shutdown in New Zealand looks like it’s one of the most thorough internationally. That’s a real credit to the Government,” he sad.

Baker said returning travellers still posed a risk, but it was now a “marginal” one.

There were police on the streets who would stop them from defying self-isolation rules in the same way that they would stop the rest of us, he said.

“At a global level the risk is still relatively low..most people who come back will not be incubating disease.” 

Baker said if those returning hadn’t made self-isolation plans, they would likely be caught at the border too.

“They’re returning to a country where everyone is in a form of quarantine,” Baker said.

“You can’t come back and hop in your car and drive around the country. You can’t go out to a pub. You can’t run around the street with other people,” he said.

Kelvin Ward, an urgent care physician who petitioned the Government to go to Level 4 lockdown, said the risk with self-isolation was always that people wouldn’t stick to it voluntarily.

However, that risk had lessened now that the country was at Level 4.

Baker also said the global spread of Covid-19 was such that most people who arrived in New Zealand over the next few days wouldn’t be carrying it.

“At a global level the risk is still relatively low … most people who come back will not be incubating disease,” Baker said.

The triage

Police Commissioner Bush said a suite of officials, including police, greeted returning New Zealanders as they entered the country on Thursday. 

Arrivals were taken to a separate facility and triaged. Officials asked questions then checked them for symptoms of Covid-19, he said.

Bush said people entering the country needed to demonstrate they had a plan to get to an appropriate location where they would self-isolate. 

They could be picked up at the airport, but only by one person in their intended self-isolation “bubble”, he said.

“If you have a place to get to we will help you get there,” Bush said. 

“Those people that do go into self isolation … our intention is within three days they would have had a knock on the door from a police officer,” he said.

People with Covid-19 don’t present with symptoms or test positive for the virus in its early stages.

Bloomfield said that was the reason they didn’t simply test everyone at the border. 

“A negative test doesn’t rule out that someone might have the infection, but be harbouring it,” Bloomfield said.

Bloomfield believed all of those factors made self-isolation similar in effectiveness to housing asymptomatic people in a supervised facility.

“It didn’t seem appropriate to keep people in a quarantine-type facility when in fact they were low risk at the point they arrived and they had a really clear, safe arrangement to go into,” he said.

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