International arrivals at Auckland Airport, June 2020 (Photo: Radio NZ, Liu Chen)

The air routes bringing in the most Covid to NZ aren’t flagged as ‘high risk’. Why not?

The government has designated only two air routes into the country as high risk, meaning crew flying them face tougher restrictions. But just 3% of new Covid-19 cases arrived via these routes in the past month – and no changes are planned to the system.

Los Angeles and San Francisco remain the only two locations designated “high risk” under official health rules, despite neither featuring prominently as departure points for people arriving in New Zealand who test positive for Covid-19. The vast majority of positive Covid-19 tests in recent months are among people arriving from India via Dubai.

Most New Zealand-based air crew are exempt from requirements to stay in MIQ but under Covid-19 legislation, the director general of health can declare an air route as being higher risk, meaning air crew based in New Zealand who work those flights must isolate on arrival until they receive a negative Covid test. Ashley Bloomfield has required this only for flights from the two west coast US cities, making those designations last October. There have been no changes since.

Health officials began reviewing the risk assessments a month ago after an Air New Zealand flight attendant tested positive following her return from Japan. That review has concluded with no change being made and restrictions will continue to apply only to direct flights departing from the US, Bloomfield confirmed.

“There is no change to that proposed as yet and we are still working with the same series of definitions, and those are updated regularly depending on what’s happening in different countries,” Bloomfield said yesterday.

“We’ve seen over the last few weeks quite a big increase in infection rates in India but a decline in infection rates in the UK and the USA, and we are watching that on a regular basis,” he added.

The Ministry of Health has reported 146 new cases at the border since March 1. Only four of those cases flew on direct flights from the US, while five American returnees arrived via Asia. Of the remainder, 94 came from India and 14 from Europe. Nearly all the cases from India and Europe arrived in New Zealand on flights that transited in the UAE, Singapore or Qatar.

University of Otago public health expert Nick Wilson told The Spinoff that designating only the two air routes didn’t make sense. “There is an increased risk from not having stricter rules applied to all air routes from red zone countries. They should all be raised to the San Francisco and LA standard and then higher still,” he said.

The flight attendant example in March was a sign that all flights coming into the country from places with community transmission should be treated the same way, said Wilson. That case saw the crew member return a positive swab during routine testing after returning from Japan on February 28. While she was out in the community, Auckland was in level three lockdown, which reduced the risk of transmission. No future cases were linked to the breach.

E tū union’s aviation spokesman Savage had called for a review last month but said he was satisfied if Bloomfield signed off on continuing the same restrictions. “We trust in that system and as long as the Ministry of Health is constantly monitoring it for changes, that’s a positive thing,” he said.

Bloomfield’s order applies only to air crews based in New Zealand. The crews of the near-daily flights from Qatar Airways, Emirates or Singapore Airlines that land in Auckland need to stay in managed isolation facilities if they leave the airport.

Along with Australia and the Pacific Islands, Air New Zealand is currently flying passengers from Hong Kong, Japan and China, as well as flights from Los Angeles. There are some additional cargo flights as well, mostly from North America and China.

In a bid to reduce the risk for its crews, Air New Zealand had proposed funnelling its North American flights through Hawaii. The idea had been to make crew changes during quick stops in the state so New Zealand-based crews wouldn’t fly to the riskier mainland. While it sounded good to the airline, officials in Honolulu eventually vetoed the plan.




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