The Covid-19 testing centre in Ōtara (Photo: RNZ/Dom Thomas)
The Covid-19 testing centre in Ōtara (Photo: RNZ/Dom Thomas)

PoliticsJune 17, 2020

A failure of New Zealand’s defensive wall against Covid-19

The Covid-19 testing centre in Ōtara (Photo: RNZ/Dom Thomas)
The Covid-19 testing centre in Ōtara (Photo: RNZ/Dom Thomas)

Days after she arrived in the country, a woman with mild symptoms was given an exemption to leave managed isolation. She wasn’t tested and may have never been given a full health check, writes Justin Giovannetti, who has first hand experience of how the system should work.

“Are you OK” was never the question a nurse asked me during the 14 days I spent in managed isolation at a government-run hotel after flying into the country.

Every day, generally around 9:30 am, a nurse phoned my room or knocked on the door. Most days it was my only face-to-face(mask) interaction. The conversation went like this: It’s time for your health check. Do you have a cough, a sore throat, a fever, a runny nose, shortness of breath, maybe a loss of smell, any aches or pains?

So it came as a surprise on Tuesday afternoon when director-general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, said one of New Zealand’s now two active cases of Covid-19 left managed-isolation despite mild symptoms, and without being tested. He’s looking into what went wrong.

And something did go wrong.

“I think this is one of things we want to check. My understanding is the person who had the symptoms was asked, ‘Are you OK’, and the protocol as you’ve just described is to go through each individual symptom and ask, and it may well have been that would have elicited specific symptoms that may have led to suspicion, but, again, I think this individual attributed her symptoms to a pre-existing condition,” said Bloomfield when I asked him yesterday how someone could exit managed-isolation with any symptoms.

“The person who did have some symptoms put them down to a pre-existing condition. They were non-specific, they attributed them to a pre-existing condition rather than the onset of an illness,” he added.

I don’t understand how this could happen. The government’s entire system of border controls rests on that one daily conversation with a nurse being conducted thoroughly and truthfully. The government’s move over the past few weeks to add mandatory testing at the border doesn’t change that. It’s trust, but verify.

Some days a nurse may have skipped a symptom or two during the health check, but during my two-week stint in government care it was made clear to me on a daily basis that any runny nose or scratch in the throat was cause for concern.

The message was clear: Yes, you may have just travelled halfway around the world in an aeroplane, you might be jet-lagged and tired, you may have just spent days in a small hotel room with very little exercise and less human contact. You might not feel great. Tell us everything.

The two women would have been in a bad situation. They arrived in New Zealand on June 7 after a long journey. They boarded a plane in the UK, where the coronavirus is raging, transited in Doha, then went through Brisbane, before finally landing in Auckland.

They arrived last Sunday. At midnight on Monday, the day after they arrived, New Zealand entered alert level one. On Friday, five days into their 14 days of mandatory isolation, they asked for a compassionate exemption to see a loved one. Their relative died that night. It must have been absolutely awful for them.

The women left Auckland’s Novotel Ellerslie the next morning, six days after they entered the country. Despite a new testing regime at the border where people are supposed to be tested once on entering and once before leaving managed-isolation, the exemption was granted so quickly that no tests were conducted.

On June 15, as part of their release plan with the health department, they went for a drive-through test in Wellington. They both tested positive.

No one will be allowed to leave managed isolation again without a negative test result, according to Bloomfield. Last night the health minister, David Clark, suspended compassionate exemptions.

Something went wrong at New Zealand’s border last week and we need to know what happened. Assessing whether someone develops symptoms is the entire point of the government’s managed-isolation system. It’s this country’s main line of defence against a global pandemic. In this case it failed.

Keep going!