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Man shopping in supermarket
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PoliticsJuly 8, 2020

Selfies, razors, and a missing 40 minutes: What did the Covid-positive absconder get up to?

Man shopping in supermarket
(Photo: Getty Images)

A man in an Auckland managed-isolation facility decided he’d like to slip through the hotel fence and get some groceries. Justin Giovannetti on what we know about his ill-advised adventure.

He’d been back in New Zealand for four days and staying in the heart of Auckland, with the roar of Albert Street below. On Tuesday evening, an hour after dusk, he slipped out of the Stamford Plaza hotel.

New Zealand’s newest known case of Covid-19 is now facing charges for leaving his managed-isolation facility and going to a central Auckland supermarket just at the end of the evening rush. He faces jail time or a fine. Health officials say there’s a low risk posed by the 32-year-old’s ill-advised shopping trip, but they still can’t account for most of his 70 minutes at large.

The man had been out smoking in a designated area on Tuesday. According to Air Commodore Digby Webb, the head of the border facilities, the man seemed to leave on a spur of the moment decision. Security footage shows him slipping through a hole in the perimeter fence at about 6:50pm as contractors were installing stronger fencing.

The man eventually was headed north. Guided by the city’s lights, and the looming Sky Tower, he walked less than half a kilometre, about six minutes, to the Countdown on West Victoria Street. Arriving around 7pm, the store wasn’t as busy as it had been an hour earlier when the after-work crowd came through and picked up their dinners.

He spent about 20 minutes at the store. More security footage at the supermarket showed him, wearing a mask, only walking a few aisles and then using a self-service check out. He didn’t come within two metres of another person, according to health officials. The man’s mask was removed for short periods of time, it isn’t clear why.

A spokesperson for Countdown filled in some of the details health officials were reluctant to disclose. The man didn’t look like he’d easily be confused with a contractor, Kiri Hannifin told RNZ; he was dressed in trendy street clothes. He purchased body lotion and razors. And, most strikingly, he stopped as he traversed the aisles to take selfies on his mobile phone.   

The store was closed today for a deep clean and all staff will be offered Covid-19 tests.

At around 8pm, he walked back into the hotel and the hands of the police. Footage is still being reviewed about where he might have been outside the store. As he returned, police were looking for him. They were alerted to his departure only minutes after it happened. A nearby security guard had been watching the smoking area and hadn’t been sure whether the man, walking in the dark towards the fence, was a contractor or a guest. The hotel’s security quickly realised they were one man short, they tried to follow the man but couldn’t find him.

Little has been released about the man. He arrived in Auckland on the afternoon of Friday, July 3 aboard Air India repatriation flight 1316. He’d been in New Delhi before heading home to New Zealand. He’s shown no signs of ill health. Earlier this week he was given his mandatory Covid-19 test. Hours after his jaunt through some of the densest urban real estate in the country, his test came back positive.

His is the second escape in recent days. On Saturday, a 43-year-old woman recently returned from Australia left the Pullman Hotel in Auckland. She jumped through a hedge and then wandered the city for 100 minutes before police located her a few blocks from her managed-isolation facility. She tested negative for Covid-19. The government has yet to release a full accounting of her movements in the city.

The man is now being held in a much stricter quarantine facility near the airport. Once he’s cleared of Covid-19, he’ll appear in court and face up to six months in jail or a $4,000 fine.

The two scofflaws have left the government irate. “It is completely unacceptable that we have now had two people leave everyone else down by breaking the rules, leaving facilities and putting New Zealanders at risk. These are acts of selfishness that we intend to use the full weight of the law to stop,” health minister Chris Hipkins said on this afternoon.

He reminded New Zealanders to continue washing their hands and keep logging their movements with a contract-tracing app or a diary. Use of the government’s app, as well as overall Covid-19 testing, has been very low over the past week.

The latest escape was announced as events in Australia highlight the seriousness and risks still posed by Covid-19. Melbourne has headed into a strict six-week lockdown after an alarming spike in coronavirus infections. A record daily number of new cases, 200, was recently recorded in Victoria.

The virus burning through Melbourne is believed to have escaped from the city’s self-isolation hotels. Security staff, often with inadequate protective gear and too much contact with guests, contracted Covid-19. They passed it onto their families and friends. State borders are now closing for the first time in a century and a virus that looked to be under control is spreading like wildfire.

Speaking today in Wellington, Webb, the stern face of the government’s border facilities, remarked that the system hadn’t been designed to stop someone looking to squeeze through a hole in a fence.

“Individual accountability sits at the cornerstone of success in this area,” he told reporters. Nearly 30,000 people have returned through the system, with very few problem.

“Fundamentally, these aren’t prisons,” Webb added. However, in the coming days, they might slowly transform into something close to detention centres.

Megan Woods, the government minister appointed to work with Webb to end the security problems, said on Wednesday that misbehaviour has increased recently. Unlike the first month of returnees who followed the rules, something has changed. A tougher hand is coming, she warned.

All the facilities are now being surrounded by six-foot-high fences. Security guards might be replaced in the coming days with police officers. The smoking arrangements that allow guests to go for a puff whenever they need one are being reviewed. Much like the supervised walks that only allow about a few dozen people a day to leave the hotels, smoking breaks might soon also be rationed. Alcohol in facilities, already hard to acquire, has become a rarer commodity in recent days.

National leader Todd Muller was dealing with his own Covid-19 leakage today. One of his MPs, Hamish Walker, has called it quits following revelations he disclosed the private details of Covid-positive patients to the media to embarrass the government. Despite his recent troubles, Muller said the escape from a border facility was proof his party was better suited to govern.

“The government continues to demonstrate, by the day actually, the fact that their border management is still not at the expectations that New Zealanders have of keeping us safe,” he said.

National had little else to say, however. It should have been a political open goal for the party, but they put no one up on evening radio shows to hammer home ongoing concerns about isolation and quarantine facilities. Had they done so, they would of course have faced little but questions about their own MP’s grave, perhaps even criminal, misconduct.

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