The Government can’t rule out that its decision to drop pre-departure testing for Kiwis fleeing Delta-ridden New South Wales contributed to the current Auckland outbreak, writes political editor Jo Moir
For more than a month the Government ran red-zone managed return flights from Sydney to Auckland with no requirements for pre-departure tests.
The exemption was made in early July after the Government received health advice from the Director-General of Health, Doctor Ashley Bloomfield, recommending all returnees from New South Wales go straight into 14 days of managed isolation on arrival.
On August 7 a Sydney returnee arrived in Auckland, and within 24 hours tested positive for the highly transmissible Covid variant, Delta, and was moved to Jet Park quarantine on August 9.
In the intervening period he infected a family in an adjacent room at the Crowne Plaza.
Within two days of the country going into Level 4 lockdown, the Sydney returnee had been genomically linked to the Auckland cluster and identified as the most likely source of the investigation.
Other than New South Wales, Fiji is the only other Delta hotspot where those returning to New Zealand are exempt from a pre-departure test.
In Fiji it’s because of hospitals being overwhelmed with patients and an unreliable testing regime.
On Tuesday Bloomfield told Newsroom the decision to exempt New South Wales was a mixture of whether New Zealanders would be able to get their results back within 72 hours and the risk someone might contract the virus while getting a test.
The window for flying back across the ditch ended up being close to six weeks long, and even continued after lockdown had begun and the Sydney returnee had been identified as the likely source.
Bloomfield revealed there was a possibility a pre-departure test could have picked up the Sydney returnee before he flew back to New Zealand.
“It’s possible, but this is the thing about pre-departure testing – if someone is early on in their infection it may not pick it up and secondly, it may be that in the time after the test they could become infected,’’ Bloomfield said.
Ardern said pre-departure testing was “another layer” of protection at the border and not a “perfect layer’’.
“It’s overly simplistic to imply had this one thing been there, this wouldn’t have happened,’’ she told the House on Tuesday afternoon in response to questions from ACT leader David Seymour
“I don’t think that’s fair.’’
But Ardern said she agreed with Otago University epidemiologist Michael Baker that Covid-positive cases at the border increased the risk of it leaking into the community.
Baker told Newsroom pre-departure testing was a crucial tool at the border.
“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.’’
Ardern said there had been very few incidents of Covid getting into the community from the border, despite 170,000 people entering MIQ.
“It just so happens when you do have an incident it can have a devastating impact, and that’s obviously what many places have experienced,’’ she told the House.
The health advice
For 10 days Newsroom has been requesting the full advice Bloomfield provided ministers when asked to assess the New South Wales situation and getting Kiwis home.
After multiple requests it was received late on Tuesday night.
Bloomfield couldn’t recall the advice when first asked about it on Monday but had been briefed ahead of Tuesday’s 1pm press conference in anticipation of Newsroom’s questions.
He said the assessment his health team had done on New South Wales in early July was that there was more risk requiring someone to get a pre-flight test “than have them isolate as they had been at home for a few weeks with Sydney in lockdown, and then go straight to the airport’’.
Bloomfield said “good infection control procedures were in place’’ for those returning to Auckland on red-zone managed flights”.
Seymour and Shaw have concerns
Seymour went head-to-head with Ardern in Question Time on Tuesday, saying the Government’s decision to drop the pre-flight testing has likely “cost the entire country weeks of lockdowns’’.
“The Government said today that it was more risky for someone in Sydney to get a test and risk getting Covid than it was to have a test.
“By that logic the Prime Minister is saying there’s more chance of catching Covid going to get a test, than a test catching Covid.
Seymour said it makes no sense for the Government to have pre-departure testing as part of its border protection if it’s “true that a test is more danger than it’s worth stopping people with Covid coming into New Zealand’’.
Green Party co-leader James Shaw said there are “obvious concerns’’ around the exemption of pre-flight testing for New South Wales.
“My experience of the Government’s response is that they have generally made the best decisions possible with the information made available to them.
“That decision may well have turned out to have been an error, and I would say if we think that, then let’s not make it again,” Shaw told Newsroom.