A good look at MIQ by epidemiologists in New Zealand and Australia has them calling for improved infection control – while an escaped infected person puts the system in the spotlight

As Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave the Covid-19 update on Thursday afternoon, she had just been given the news that police were on the way to apprehend a recently escaped positive case in Auckland.

As she answered questions from the press, she made the decision to not mention the case, later explaining she didn’t want to reveal the situation as it was still evolving and potentially volatile. 

Volatility has in some ways been the state of affairs in managed isolation recently – particularly in the facilities set aside to house Aucklanders who test positive for the virus.

These facilities were previously housed with Kiwis mollified by the relief of a return to New Zealand and migrants seeking refuge from often Covid-ravaged parts of the world – voluntary entries into the MIQ system, many of whom paid top dollar for their two weeks in a hotel room.

But now the Delta variant has spread into the community, it’s members of the community who are being plucked up and put up in the hotels whether they like it or not, should they test positive.

Perhaps this explains some of the chaotic energy coming out of MIQ in recent days – whether it was the infected woman who had a verbal confrontation with workers in the lobby of the Novotel Ellerslie, or the man who snuck out of the same hotel early on Thursday morning.

A different mood hides behind the hotel room doors in MIQ at the moment.

Rather than people on their way home after living abroad, the people in these facilities have recently been given the news that they have a potentially deadly virus and moved from their homes into an unfamiliar place. In many cases, whole families and bubbles have been moved inside.

A hopefully facetious mayday message in the window of the Grand Mercure MIQ facility in central Auckland. Photo: Matthew Scott

Speaking to the press on Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson didn’t seem worried about these breaches, saying security in the facilities was at a good level – although investigation is underway to check for gaps.

“We already have them as secure as we can have them but we’ll take a look,” he said, citing CCTV, double fencing and the nine security staff who were working on Wednesday night.

Despite one staff member even passing right by the escapee while he hid in a bush, the man was still able to get down the fire escape stairwell and over two layers of fencing without being detected.

“It’s not a prison,” Robertson said. “It’s a place where we’re keeping the people inside safe. There’s been significant audits done on all of the facilities to make sure they are operating the way we want them to.”

He said one of the questions asked will be why despite the facility having CCTV, none of the nine security staff were monitoring it and the escapee’s absence was only realised once a member of his bubble alerted the authorities.

But a recently published article by a group of public health experts from here and across the ditch, including Dr Michael Baker, Dr Amanda Kvalsvig and Nick Wilson, cautions that infection control within New Zealand’s quarantine systems should be improved.

Wilson said as a scientist he is less interested in single ad-hoc events such as the Novotel escapee than analysing patterns based on data.

He and his colleagues recommend in their conclusions that improved vaccination of quarantine workers and incoming travellers, or even an alternative to hotel-based quarantine should be developed.

The group of academics identified 10 quarantine system failures in New Zealand, with one initiating an outbreak that caused three deaths and a lockdown.

The analysis covered quarantine systems in Australia and New Zealand, and found failure rates in New Zealand per positive traveller were higher in New Zealand. The article reflected this “could reflect lower quality quarantine measures, but perhaps also greater detection of infections among border workers by testing over a longer period”.

The article concludes that MIQ failures can be costly in terms of lives and economic impact, adding that “hotel-based quarantine needs to be improved or alternative approaches developed”.

The MIQ system has a history of escapes, beginning with a woman who climbed the fence of the Pullman Hotel in Auckland last July, before being found by authorities a few streets away.

A few days later, a man left the Stamford Plaza to pick up some supplies from the Countdown on Victoria Street, before returning and prompting the introduction of six foot high fencing to all outdoor spaces in MIQ.

A few days later, police began working within MIQ, just as a man in Hamilton performed a successful jailbreak from the Distinction in order to hit up the bottle shop.

In the same month, a man alighted from a broken window in the Waipuna Hotel in Mt Wellington and a family of five escaped their Hamilton MIQ to try and make it to their father’s funeral.

Then there was the man who made the daring escape from the fourth storey window of the Ramada on a rope of bedsheets tied together. He even inspired a copycat, who performed a similar trick in June of this year – although in this instance he simply wanted to pick up something he had dropped out of the window, and dutifully returned to his chambers without being asked.

It’s been a while since somebody got out, perhaps partly due to the introduction of soldiers manning the gates since last August.

Nevertheless, the events of this week seem to reinforce the findings of Baker, Kvalsvig, Wilson et al.

“Every facility has high levels of security,” Robertson said. “But obviously something’s gone wrong here.”

Brigadier Rose King, Joint Head of MIQ, said escapes are rare and taken very seriously.

“The fact that someone has absconded from one of our facilities is a disappointing and unacceptable breach,” she said. “MIQ is here to keep Covid out of the community and I’m investigating what happened in this instance to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

For the escapee, another attempt to slip out would likely be thwarted – a security guard has been permanently stationed outside his room at the Jet Park facility.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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