The Ministry of Health has set its investigators to find the last uncontacted arrivals from Victoria by poring through health databases and border arrival cards – but how do they keep the search going once this yields no results?

Officials from the Ministry of Health are in the business of finding needles in haystacks.

After more than a year of government agencies being watchful for infection on our shores, contact tracing has become de rigueur, and investigators have more than one trick up their sleeve – they have three, to be exact.

As the news reached Wellington that community transmission was happening in Victoria again, it was quickly apparent this training would need to be put to use.

However, opaque names for ministry processes such as finders service and a lack of clarity about which other government agencies are involved in searching for people has raised questions about how the ‘people-finding services’ work.

Covid rearing its contagious head in Victoria meant New Zealand had to act quickly.

Suspending quarantine-free travel was the first job on the list, and before the day was out, flights between Melbourne and New Zealand had been cancelled.

But the tricky thing about Covid is the time-lag between a person contracting the virus and first showing symptoms – so the risk of further infection within New Zealand was still there from anybody who had arrived from Melbourne in the days before the new cluster hit the headlines.

There were 4749 such people – all of whom had to be contacted, instructed to get a test and self-isolate, and then have their test results collected.

Since May 25, when the bubble was paused, the Ministry of Health has managed to track down all but seven.

But what does the search for the missing travellers look like?

Officials at the National Investigation and Tracing Centre, a division of the Ministry of Health, look into accessible information that may reveal alternative contact details for the errant travellers. According to the Ministry of Health, this process – which they call the finders service – consists of three steps.

Firstly – they sought out information directly from the border, checking border arrival cards for alternative contact details – perhaps some slipped through the cracks by virtue of having more than one email address or a typo in a phone number.

Secondly, investigators checked with Immigration New Zealand to determine who of those they were searching for had already left the country. The Ministry of Health reports 1292 had already returned to Australia.

The third and final avenue is checking health databases for the person in question.

The ministry says from this point they must defer to help from police and other agencies – although it has been unwilling to specify to the media which these other agencies are.

“Police and other agencies are used to help find people when other avenues are exhausted,” said a spokesperson from the ministry. Questions as to the identity of the other agencies were given no comment.

Most of the people whom needed to be contacted were found through the Nau Mai Rā electronic system, which requires people to list their contact tracing information before they get on flights bound for New Zealand.

Details from this system meant officials were able to get a hold of 96 percent of the affected travellers very quickly.

Over half of all recent Melbourne arrivals have been found negative for the virus, but Ministry of Health officials are still chasing up the results of the rest.

On top of this, there were 370 crew members travelling across the ditch between May 20 and 25. Of these, 231 have returned a negative test result – but as of June 3, 139 tests are still awaited.

The variant of the virus causing the current outbreak across the Tasman was first reported in India and is considered more infectious than the original variant.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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