Jacinda Ardern says ministers received health advice recommending Kiwis returning from Delta-ridden New South Wales didn’t need a pre-flight test. But Dr Ashley Bloomfield can’t be sure, writes political editor Jo Moir.
The Government has dragged the chain on releasing the advice the Director-General of Health gave ministers in early July when managed red zone flights were set up to get Kiwis out of New South Wales and into 14 days of managed isolation.
As Kiwis were scrambling to get home, the Government dropped pre-departure testing as a requirement, and within a month Delta had leaked into the community via a Sydney returnee and put the country into national lockdown.
Red zone flights operated for six weeks from July 13 and continued after lockdown had been implemented until August 22.
As recently as Sunday, Doctor Ashley Bloomfield praised the role pre-departure testing played in keeping Covid at bay.
He 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.
Newsroom asked him on Monday what advice he’d provided the Covid Response Minister at the time the red zone flights were being set up, but he couldn’t recall.
“I’d have to go back and just have a look. I haven’t got that at the front of my mind at the moment, but I’m very happy to come back to you.’’
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stepped in and said she could recall the advice and was happy to answer on his behalf.
“So, the advice at that time, and remember this was very early on in the outbreak, and the numbers were much lower.
“It was at the time we made the decision to have red flights, but nonetheless, the view at that time was two-fold – that there was probably as much risk having someone go and attend (a test), because they had a high positivity rate at that point, that there was as much risk asking someone to go and attend to receive a pre-departure test, and given that they were going to go into quarantine the view of the health team was to allow them to come back and test them on arrival.
“That was the advice we were given,’’ she told Newsroom.
“There was definitely no recommendation from the Ministry of Health to have pre-departure tests – I remember that much.’’
On the back of Ardern’s recollection, Newsroom asked Bloomfield how that advice stacked up with his comments on Sunday that pre-flight testing is an “important part’’ of preventing Covid getting into the community.
Ardern jumped in and responded on behalf of Bloomfield, saying, “It’s not the only place we don’t have pre-departure testing requirements, there are other places where the availability of pre-departure testing means they do come straight in as well’’.
That’s a reference to Fiji, which has also been exempt from pre-departure testing since earlier this year, despite its hospitals overflowing because of a Delta outbreak.
When Newsroom revealed last week that Fiji was also exempt, Otago University epidemiologist Michael Baker made the case for pre-departure testing, saying it 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.”
On Monday when Newsroom prompted Bloomfield again about why he would advise against pre-departure testing for New South Wales returnees when he considers it such an important tool, Ardern again answered on his behalf.
“It is in the context. One of the things to keep in mind is those red flights and the proximity of their availability to bring people back, the 72 hours beforehand, the processing time available in Australia.
“There are a range of factors if I recall, so let’s just get the advice out and we can share it with you.”
Newsroom responded saying it had asked for the advice and had been told it had to be dealt with under the Official Information Act, which could take weeks or more.
“Everything’s eventually released anyway – I’ve spoken to it – so I’ve no problem releasing it,’’ she said.
Newsroom has contacted her office and the Ministry of Health to ask for the full advice to be released.