Update: Three weeks after this report, a Tuesday afternoon was interrupted by the news that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was hopping a flight down to Wellington to discuss the country’s plans after a community case was picked up in Auckland. New Zealand’s longest stretch without a community case was over and the Auckland’s long stint in lockdown began. Although New Zealand’s strict border regime kept the virus out for months, it only took one breakthrough for the virus to return. Authorities are still unable to confirm exactly how Delta made it through the border.

We’re keeping Covid out at the border – for now – but just last week our defences had to stop 60 positive cases.  Almost inevitably, that protection shield will fail.

It seems to be coming at us from all angles.

Covid, and its more dangerous variant Delta is knocking at the door, which is holding closed.

Where the New Zealand border was once a membrane designed primarily to keep out  things you could see, feel and touch – parcels of cocaine hidden inside of lawn ornaments, the grass on the bottom of golfers’ shoes, people – now it has found itself tasked with the tougher job  of keeping a literally microscopic speck engineered to pass from organism to organism out of the country.

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With the virus’ newest adaptation Delta a regular would-be visitor, those in charge of the country’s border have had to step up their defence, just last week fending off Covid from a variety of different directions.

That week provides a telling snapshot of what the country’s border defences look like right now, with 60 cases caught by border testing before they could enter the country.

More than half of these cases were found on three ships bound for our shores from overseas – the Marshall Islands-flagged container ship Mattina, and Spanish fishing vessels Viking Bay and Playa Zahara.

Tests on the incoming ships revealed positive cases – some of which have now been confirmed to be strains of the virulent Delta variant.

The three ships were directed to dock in three locations across New Zealand – Mattina in Bluff, Playa Zahara in Lyttelton and Viking Bay in Wellington.

Perimeter fencing and security guards have kept the ships and their infected passengers separate from the New Zealand population, while some crew members were transferred into MIQ for a stay on the Government dime.

At the same time, the daily intake into New Zealand’s system of managed isolation picked up its regular new cases of Covid.

The current location of the majority of New Zealand’s current active cases of Covid-19. Image: Matthew Scott

Last Sunday, deep-sea fishing vessel Playa Zahara arrived in Lyttelton Harbour, carrying a crew of 18 people – 16 of whom were found to be infected with the virus after previous testing off the coast of Taranaki.

The ship was given a quarantine berth, where five of the crew members were set to stay and self-isolate.

Meanwhile, the MIQ arrivals’ test results from the previous Friday began to trickle in. Seven more cases were added to the national total, with the patients all ensconced in facilities in Auckland.

As the number of cases in Victoria began to grow, the Ministry of Health kept a close eye on the situation and encouraged recent returnees to consult the lengthening list of locations of interest in Victoria.

The Ministry kept the unstable bubble afloat for five more days before announcing its eight-week suspension last Friday.

That night, the Mattina arrived in Bluff – a container ship flying the flag of the Marshall Islands, with 15 of its 21 crew members testing positive.

Five more attempts by the virus to score a goal were swatted back by the MBIE goalkeeper on Monday with cases appearing in MIQ with points of origin as diverse as Eritrea, Serbia and the Philippines.

Health officials in the Southern DHB tried to determine the next steps for the Mattina – while genome sequencing would determine the sick crew members had the infectious delta variant later in the week.

On Tuesday, direct flights from South Korea and Fiji delivered three more cases in managed isolation.

The three negative-testing crew members on the Mattina were brought onto New Zealand soil, to be put up by the Southern DHB and the Ministry of Health while their crewmates waited out the virus.

Two of these crew members were brought to a quarantine facility in Christchurch, despite testing negative. The third was the Mattina’s captain, who needed to stay near the ship in case of emergency – he was provided with accommodation near the ship by the DHB and instructed to self-isolate.

Covid in the wastewater put a bow on a busy work-week for the country’s antivirus system. Traces of the virus were discovered in wastewater tests in New Plymouth, sparking fears due to the Playa Zahara and Viking Bay’s brief docking at Port Taranaki.

This leads to two possible outcomes – recently recovered cases are continuing to shed the virus, or there are undetected cases in the community.

Luckily, testing over the weekend in New Plymouth providing only negative results, suggesting the former possibility is the reality.

Meanwhile, next month the Canadian naval vessel HMCS Calgary is set to dock in New Zealand for resupply and refuelling – the first time a foreign military ship has come all this way since the beginning of the pandemic.

The Canadian seamen won’t have to go through MIQ, with the trip here at sea acting as their own bespoke time in isolation.

The Ministry of Health has promised a strict regime of testing before entry.

But there remains the opportunity for the virus to piggy-back in through one of these openings of the usually strict border.

Government departments handling the borders are like the boy with his hand in the dyke, holding back the sea. It seems there’s always the opportunity for the water to exploit another weak point.

The system has held for now, meticulously, maybe miraculously. Officials with only so many options hold out hope they will not be overwhelmed. 

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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