The Government puts isolation exemptions on hold after NZ’s newest Covid cases were allowed to leave without being tested, with a guest at the hotel where the pair stayed concerned about a lack of rigour in health checks

New Zealanders in managed isolation will temporarily be unable to leave early on compassionate grounds, after it emerged two new cases of Covid-19 had been allowed to travel from Auckland to Wellington without undergoing a test beforehand.

The news brought New Zealand’s 24-day streak without a new case of Covid-19 to an end, with one man in isolation at the hotel where the pair stayed in Auckland criticising the level of checks and health precautions in place.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield has expressed confidence that the two women, who returned to New Zealand from the United Kingdom to see a dying parent, adhered to the self-isolation plan that was drawn up for them.

However, neither was tested before being allowed out of quarantine – an oversight Bloomfield says he has asked officials to rectify.

Health Minister David Clark said he had ordered Bloomfield to suspend compassionate exemptions to ensure the system was working as intended, with any reinstatement only coming once the Government had confidence in the system.

“Compassionate exemptions should be rare and rigorous and it appears that this case did not include the checks that we expected to be happening. That’s not acceptable,” Clark said.

The country’s border measures were a key line of defence against Covid-19, and needed to be as robust as possible.

In addition to the mandatory requirement for a negative test, Clark said he had asked Bloomfield to consider whether there were any other measures that could be put in place at the border to strengthen health protections.

Guests in managed isolation at the Novotel Ellerslie have been ordered to stay in their rooms. Photo: Supplied.

Chas Parker, who went into managed isolation at the Novotel Ellerslie on June 9 after returning from Australia, said he was disappointed both by news of the positive cases and the circumstances he and others at the hotel were in.

“I feel as if I’d be a lot safer if I could go home and isolate.”

Parker said he was concerned about conditions within the facility, with dwindling supplies of hand sanitiser on offer.

He had not undergone any Covid-19 tests in the time since he arrived, while the daily health checks seemed to lack rigour.

“Someone just puts that little temperature gun to your head, and that’s really it – they just ask you if you’re OK, I don’t think that’s thorough enough.”

Parker did not know whether he had come into contact with the two women, as the people in isolation kept to themselves, but was concerned that he had shared the same elevator as them and other communal spaces.

Parker praised the hotel staff, who he said were doing a good job, but felt the Ministry of Health was not meeting the public’s expectations. (The ministry has been approached for comment by Newsroom regarding his remarks).

“We know that this will be an unsettling time for you and appreciate your understanding and cooperation. Please rest assured that your health and wellbeing is our primary concern.”

Before news of the positive tests was made public, those in isolation were told only to go to their rooms, with some time passing before a brief letter was delivered to them explaining what had happened.

The letter, from the Ministry of Health’s regional health lead Jo Elvidge, asked guests to stay in their rooms as a precautionary measure while testing took place over the next 24 hours, with “next steps” contingent on the results of individual tests for guests and staff.

No guests would be allowed to leave the facility for any reason, including if they had been due to check out on Tuesday or Wednesday, while the testing took place. While meals would be delivered as usual, supermarket and food deliveries had been suspended due to the new cases.

“We know that this will be an unsettling time for you and appreciate your understanding and cooperation. Please rest assured that your health and wellbeing is our primary concern,” Elvidge said.

‘A pandemic raging outside our shores’

Earlier in the day, Bloomfield said the women had arrived in the country on June 7 and stayed in managed isolation at the Novotel Ellerslie in Auckland, before being granted compassionate grounds to travel to Wellington by private vehicle on June 13.

The pair had not used any public facilities or been in contact with anyone else en route to Wellington, and had stayed with a single family member since arriving in the region.

Having undergone testing as part of their agreed self-isolation plan, both returned positive tests. One had experienced mild symptoms beforehand, which were attributed to a pre-existing condition, while the other had been symptom-free.

Bloomfield said staff at the Auckland hotel who had been in close contact with the pair would be stood down and tested, while health officials were reviewing footage from the period where the women came through the border to check whether any border staff would need to be contacted.

While a negative test result was usually a prerequisite for a compassionate exit from quarantine, the process had been expedited after their parent’s condition worsened and no test was carried out.

Bloomfield said he had now made it clear that a negative Covid-19 test would be a requirement for compassionate release, whatever an individual’s circumstances were.

He was also seeking more information on the symptom checks carried out as part of the quarantine process to check whether there had been any shortcomings.

“My understanding is the person who had the symptoms was asked, ‘Are you OK?’, and as you’ve just described actually the protocol is to go through each individual symptom and ask.”

Bloomfield said the two cases showed why the Government would not grant exemptions to attend funerals or tangihanga at Level 1, and were a reminder that New Zealanders should not be complacent.

“There is a pandemic raging outside our shores, we’re all aware of that.”

Ardern emphasises border controls

Speaking before the press conference, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern would not be drawn on the details of the new cases but said they showed the need for continued border controls.

“What this does prove is the importance of a rigorous system at our border, of us continuing to be very, very cautious in our management, and taking the cautious approach that we have continued to take as a government.”

When she announced the nation’s move to Level 1 on June 8, Ardern noted the “harsh reality that the virus will be in our world for some time to come”.

“We are confident we have eliminated transmission of the virus in New Zealand for now, but elimination is not a point in time; it is a sustained effort,” Ardern said.

“We almost certainly will see cases here again … and that is not a sign that we have failed; it is a reality of this virus.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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