The Government scrapped what its own top health official describes as “an important part’’ of preventing Covid-19 from getting into the community.
Analysis: Pre-departure testing for New Zealanders returning home and entering managed isolation is considered one of the best defences against a Covid-19 community outbreak.
But when Kiwis were fleeing Delta-ridden New South Wales, the Government dropped it as a requirement, and within a month the virus had leaked into the community via a Sydney returnee, and put the country into national lockdown.
On July 9, Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced managed flights for New Zealanders wanting to get home from New South Wales (NSW) were suspended.
Cabinet had made the decision to put everyone returning from NSW into 14 days of managed isolation due to the rising case numbers in the Australian state.
“The risk to New Zealand from the state has continued to increase. That warrants an extra level of protection at the border for the time being.” – Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins
In addition, it dropped pre-departure testing requirements that had already been enforced across most Australian states.
The suspension on flights was for three days to give MIQ time to prepare for the influx of returnees and for airlines to set up red-zone flights connected to an MIQ booking, which was outside the usual online room allocations.
At the time, Hipkins said it was a “difficult decision but we consider it is necessary given the heightened risk in NSW’.
“The risk to New Zealand from the state has continued to increase. That warrants an extra level of protection at the border for the time being,’’ he said.
But despite this escalated risk the pre departure test was dropped and returnees would instead go straight into managed isolation and get tested on arrival, and again on day 3 and day 12.
Pre-departure tests have long been touted by Government ministers and the Director-General of Health as a significant border protection, limiting the number of positive cases that arrive on New Zealand shores, and potentially leak into the community.
Tests also protect against transmission occurring on a flight, as it reduces the chances of someone infectious boarding a plane.
For more than a month red zone flights were run out of NSW with no pre-departure testing requirements.
As recently as Sunday, Director General of Health Doctor Ashley Bloomfield told Newsroom there had been a “reduction in people” who were testing positive for Covid-19 at their day zero or day one test, since pre-departure testing was introduced.
“There’s no doubt it’s an important part of the suite of testing, and other measures, to help prevent other cases coming into the country and out into the community,’’ he said.
Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson warned pre-departure testing wasn’t “100 percent foolproof’’ because people could still contract the virus while in transit to New Zealand.
“But it remains a part of what we do and as we look to the future in terms of when we move to a position where border restrictions are reduced, as per the plan we announced a few weeks back, clearly pre-departure testing will sit alongside other measures we might do in and around the border, like vaccination status,’’ Robertson told Newsroom.
Important piece of the outbreak puzzle found in Sydney
By July 23, the entire trans-Tasman bubble had been suspended as Delta leaked into other Australian states, including Victoria and South Australia.
For more than a month, red zone flights were run out of NSW with no pre-departure testing requirements.
On August 17 New Zealand went into alert Level 4 lockdown when Delta was discovered in the Auckland community. By now, NSW was hitting daily records of almost 500 cases.
Within days, health officials had tracked the genomic sequencing to a Sydney returnee who came back on August 7 and been put in the Crowne Plaza managed isolation facility. He tested positive shortly after his arrival and on August 9 was moved to the Jet Park quarantine facility.
There have been plenty of questions raised about how secure the Crowne Plaza was after Newsroom first revealed in mid-July issues with a public walkway sharing the same airspace as those in MIQ.
The Crowne Plaza is under review and additional work has been completed on its perspex barriers in the past fortnight, after two public walkways were discovered operating in and around the facility, which is at the root of the current outbreak.
Even after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on August 19 that the outbreak had been linked to the Sydney returnee in MIQ, managed flights continued from the state without any pre-departure testing requirements.
It was August 22 before those flights came to a halt.
“Returnees from the state were not asked to undertake a pre departure test because they were required to enter a Managed Isolation and Quarantine Facility for at least 14 days on arrival, with testing on days 0/1, 3 and 12.” – Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins
Newsroom put a series of questions to both the Prime Minister and Covid Response Minister’s offices over the past week about why pre-departure testing was dropped as a requirement.
Of particular interest is why New South Wales travellers were treated differently to New Zealanders returning from India, where Delta was rampant by April.
On April 23 the Government had added India to its ‘very high risk’ list, making it a requirement that any New Zealanders had to first spend 14 days outside of a ‘very high risk’ country before travelling here.
They were required to get a negative nasopharyngeal RT-PCR test result from an accredited laboratory completed within 72 hours of departures.
The advice specifically said, “no other types of tests qualify’’ and on arrival 14 days of managed isolation had to be completed.
While roughly 100 Delta positive cases have been found in MIQ from people who have travelled from many international destinations, New South Wales and Fiji were the only destinations with known cases, not requiring a pre-departure test.
In response to why New South Wales was treated differently, Hipkins told Newsroom decisions “are based on the best information we have at the time.
“Where they differ, that is based on circumstances in-country and in New Zealand.
“The decision to put on managed flights out of NSW in July was made with health advice that the situation and risk were worsening and there was a short window for New Zealand residents to be able to return here,’’ he said.
“Returnees from the state were not asked to undertake a pre departure test because they were required to enter a Managed Isolation and Quarantine Facility for at least 14 days on arrival, with testing on days 0/1, 3 and 12.
“They could not fly if they had any Covid-19 symptoms, and anyone who visited any Australian location of interest could not travel to New Zealand from anywhere in Australia within 14 days from when they were at the location of interest.’’
New South Wales became the exception. It also became the source of the Auckland community outbreak.
Hipkins told Newsroom the decision around pre-departure testing was made in the “wider context of the trans-Tasman bubble, which had not previously required a pre departure test, and which was subsequently suspended on 23 July.’’
Yet, the pre-departure test requirements for returnees from Australia had already changed.
Green zone flights continued with most other Australian states, other than New South Wales, throughout July until the bubble was formally suspended on the 23rd.
But entry from there had still required a test being completed within 72 hours of travel.
New South Wales v India
Hipkins told Newsroom comparing New South Wales to India wasn’t “particularly valid’’ because there were other significant differences.
“We were not able to facilitate flights out of India, flights from Australia are direct, with no stop-off en route, and the risk profile in India was higher than Australia.”
But Hipkins had already altered the conditions of the trans-Tasman bubble by requiring New Zealanders to complete a pre-departure test from other states.
New South Wales became the exception. It also became the source of the Auckland community outbreak.
In the past fortnight the Government announced it was restarting red zone flights for those trapped in Australia, with a requirement that a pre-departure test be done.
But just last week that was stopped because there isn’t enough space in MIQ, with the increased number of Covid positive community cases in Auckland.
The case for dropping pre-departure tests
Newsroom put a series of questions to the Government about why New South Wales was treated differently and initially we were told advice from Doctor Ashley Bloomfield to Cabinet would be provided.
When that advice arrived it was selected quotes as part of a response from Hipkins.
He said the Ministry of Health provided advice on July 9 relating to the deteriorating Delta situation in New South Wales.
“The advice noted that due to poor compliance with lockdown rules in New South Wales and the fact that many shops were open during lockdown the number of new cases infectious in the community were increasing.
The advice said: ‘This increases the potential that returning travellers could be exposed or infectious on arrival in New Zealand. It also reduces our confidence in pre-departure tests preventing infection coming into New Zealand’.
While the advice explains why pre-departure testing isn’t as reliable, it isn’t clear whether the ministry recommended dropping pre-departure testing in exchange for 14 days in MIQ.
Hipkins went on to say: “As such, the advice was to replace the requirement for a PDT to return from New South Wales with a more stringent approach that required everyone returning from the state to be cohorted into MIQ facilities for 14 days and submit themselves to the local testing regime, including day 0 tests, to more accurately separate out quickly anyone arriving with the virus.”
This is Hipkins’ account of the advice – Newsroom wasn’t provided the advice in full.
When Newsroom asked for it, the response from Hipkins’ office was that it needed to be treated under the Official Information Act – a delay that could take weeks or more.
It comes at the same time the Government has renewed an exemption from pre-departure testing for New Zealanders returning from Fiji.
Despite the fact Fiji is reporting hundreds of new Covid-19 cases a day and its hospitals are overflowing as a result of a Delta outbreak, New Zealanders returning from the country are exempt from testing.
Otago University epidemiologist Michael Baker said pre-departure testing was a crucial tool in reducing the number of incoming Covid-19 cases.
“Our argument in the past has been that the best thing New Zealand can do to protect its borders is to reduce to as close to zero as possible the number of infected people arriving here,” he said.
“As soon as a positive person arrives in New Zealand MIQ, our risk of a local outbreak goes up incrementally.”
For now, the gap in testing requirements for some Covid hotspots has, and continues, to leave New Zealand exposed to more community outbreaks in the future.