A senior foreign affairs official has had to put off his return to New Zealand after testing positive for Covid during a lengthy trip to conclude trade deals

One of New Zealand’s top diplomats has been forced to prolong his stay overseas after catching Covid-19 during a trade trip.

Vangelis Vitalis, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s deputy secretary for trade and economic issues, accompanied Trade and Export Growth Minister Damien O’Connor on a trip this month to the United States, Belgium, France, Ireland, Italy and Sweden.

Vitalis has played a crucial role in free trade talks with the European Union as New Zealand’s chief negotiator, while he has also been involved in FTA negotiations with the United Kingdom, with both countries announcing last week that an agreement in principle had been reached.

In addition, he has helped to lead New Zealand’s host year of the APEC forum as the senior officials’ meeting chair, overseeing talks to reach agreement on speeding up the movement of vaccines and other Covid essentials across borders.

In an interview with Newsroom about his APEC role, Vitalis spoke about the “tremendous privilege” of his role as well as the burden that New Zealand politicians and officials had shouldered to make the year a success.

“Most of the meetings that I’ve chaired have been from midnight onwards: the temptation to put them at a more human hour for New Zealand, which would have been a terrible hour for people in the Americas, the Russians, and indeed most of the Asia Pacific was at times huge, right?

“Like, your fifth night in a row at 3am, you start to think ‘Well, you know, maybe I should change that’, and we haven’t done that, because I don’t think that’s right.”

In a statement, an MFAT spokeswoman said that while it was unusual for the ministry to discuss the health status of an employee, it could confirm Vitalis had tested positive for Covid-19 while in Europe.

“As a consequence, he has had to remain in Europe longer than expected, including to ensure full compliance with local Covid-related self-isolation regulations.”

Vitalis was double-vaccinated, had experienced only mild symptoms to date, and was recovering well, the spokeswoman said.

While in Europe, he had been able to continue to fulfil his APEC responsibilities as well as his role leading EU negotiations for New Zealand.

The MFAT spokeswoman said the ministry maintained “an ongoing range of measures to support the health, safety and wellbeing of staff while travelling or posted offshore”.

MFAT chief executive Chris Seed has previously spoken about the burden taken on by foreign affairs officials, particularly those posted overseas, during the pandemic.

Speaking to Parliament’s foreign affairs, defence and trade committee in May, Seed mentioned one official in a senior posting who had been able to share a meal with anyone else just seven times in seven months, as well as another employee in a Western capital who worried about “sustaining a family through a pandemic, including the impact on his kids of 11 months of Zoom schooling, guilt about his partner having so few opportunities to meet new people since arriving in their city, constant anxiety about being exposed to Covid in everyday life outside the embassy”.

“These are people that are delivering for New Zealand every day under conditions that are hugely challenging professionally and even more challenging personally.

“I think they’re showing extraordinary dedication to their profession, to the ministry, to the public service, and to New Zealand,” Seed said.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

Leave a comment