Health minister David Clark and director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield at Parliament on May 13 (Photo: Mark Mitchell - Pool/Getty Images)

Military could lead oversight of revamped Covid-19 isolation, says health minister

The system of managed self-isolation has failed in the case of the two women who arrived from the UK, David Clark said, and the government wants to ‘strengthen the oversight’ of the process.

The “failing in the system”, which saw a recent arrival from Britain who later tested positive for Covid-19 being approved to drive from Auckland to Wellington despite having symptoms, has prompted the health minister, David Clark, to consider a role for the military in the managed self-isolation process.

In a rare censure of the health system’s performance in response to the Covid-19 crisis, Clark told RNZ that in the next 24 hours the government would consider relieving the ministry of some of its responsibilities in the  quarantine system.

It was revealed yesterday that two recent arrivals in the country had been allowed on compassionate grounds to leave hotel self-isolation just six days in to the 14-day quarantine period, and to drive to Wellington without being tested – and despite one of the pair having had symptoms.

Last night Clark announced that all compassionate exemptions would be suspended and would “only be reinstated once the government has confidence in the system”. In a Facebook Live post last night, the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern said there had been a “failure” in adherence to protocols, adding: “This case is clear – our expectations have not been met in this instance.”

Speaking to Newstalk ZB this morning, the police minister, Stuart Nash, went further, saying the episode was “unforgivable” and the result of “ineptitude”

This morning, in an interview with Kathryn Ryan on Nine to Noon, Clark said the government was now looking at an overhaul of the isolation process in the wake of yesterday’s revelations, including a potential role for the military.

Asked about who was overseeing the system, Clark said: “Currently, obviously, the health system has led on setting that up, but that’s currently something we’re looking at very closely, because we believe that [the Ministry of] Health is very good at the health parts of it and actually we may need to strengthen the oversight.”

He added: “A lot of it is logistics, and making sure systems are in place … It might be somebody in the military who might have that expertise. Certainly MBIE does the logistics side of things well, so they’re definitely involved.”

It was a question that he would be “closely looking at in the next 24 hours”, said Clark.

“This kind of thing simply can’t happen again. It’s not acceptable that we’ve had this kind of failing in the system.”

A spokesperson for Clark said he add nothing to add to what was stated by the minister in the RNZ interview as far as a possible role for the military is concerned. He told The Spinoff the remarks did not imply a lack of confidence in the Ministry of Health, saying the border and isolation processes already involved “shared responsibilities” among a number of agencies.

A number of urgent meetings were under way today to discuss the isolation measures and it was a “fast moving situation which we want to resolve quickly”.

The National Party leader, Todd Muller, this morning told RNZ that the system failure was so serious that Ardern should sack Clark as health minister.

At a press briefing yesterday, the director general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, said anyone granted an exemption would have been required to return a negative test before leaving quarantine, but in this case it was “expedited” owing to the condition of the unwell family member.

Earlier today the chief ombudsman, Peter Boshier, said he would soon begin inspecting Covid-19 isolation and quarantine facilities to ensure arrivals are being “treated humanely.”

“I am setting up a new inspection programme to independently monitor and report on them. The public needs to be assured that people who are being isolated for health reasons are being treated fairly and their basic human rights are being respected,” said Boshier.

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