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A hotel staff worker sanitises the outside of Auckland’s Stamford Plaza on July 10, 2020 (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
A hotel staff worker sanitises the outside of Auckland’s Stamford Plaza on July 10, 2020 (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

OPINIONSocietyJuly 17, 2020

From New Zealand to Australia and back again: My four weeks in hotel isolation

A hotel staff worker sanitises the outside of Auckland’s Stamford Plaza on July 10, 2020 (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
A hotel staff worker sanitises the outside of Auckland’s Stamford Plaza on July 10, 2020 (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

In June, Trevor McKewen, an Australian citizen living in New Zealand, travelled to Queensland to be with his dying brother. Now back home, and staying in an Auckland hotel, he writes this dispatch from his second spell of managed isolation in as many months.

For the past month and a bit, I have lived in a twilight zone.

By the time I leave Auckland’s Stamford Plaza hotel late next week, I will have been away from my wife, daughter, grandchildren and close friends for six weeks – four of those in managed isolation with a fortnight on each side of the Tasman.

It’s been a bizarre half world where I’ve felt perpetually dazed.

I left Auckland on June 12, bound for Brisbane after news my younger brother’s cancer operation had not gone well and I needed to get to the Gold Coast as quickly as possible to support him, his family and my mother.

I wrote about the experience of managed isolation in Australia for The Spinoff. Now I am back here experiencing the Kiwi version.

In-between, we lost my brother. I will remain eternally grateful for the five days I had with him after my fortnight’s quarantine in Queensland. I was with him when he passed. And it was a privilege to organise his send-off along with my other brother and my Gold Coast-based son. My heart goes out to those many people denied a chance to see their dying relatives because of that bastard, Covid-19.

But it’s a heart that feels like it’s in a million pieces right now. And being in isolation here in Auckland – with the consolation of friends and family restricted to electronic means only – doesn’t  help.

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

It was difficult to know what I would encounter when I stepped back onto an Air New Zealand flight from Brisbane on a plane that was at best only 10% full.

In the month I was in Queensland, events on both sides of the Tasman got worse rather than better. I read of the handful of “detainees” who had absconded from quarantine facilities in New Zealand and the resulting beef-up of security. The day I flew out Victoria was a mess with a second wave of the virus sweeping the state like some invisible tsunami.

We were one of only three flights leaving Brisbane that day. One was going to Doha and the other somewhere that now slips my mind. The airport, empty of the excited cacophony of travellers on holiday or returning home, was surreal and sobering.

The atmosphere on the plane was sombre. Those on board were almost exclusively New Zealanders returning home. You didn’t need to see their full faces (masks were compulsory the whole time except for eating) to read the anxiety. It was in everyone’s eyes.

I am not necessarily a sentimental or melancholy person but the little moments of kindness along the way helped. The woman at the airport whose mask couldn’t hide her cheery disposition in welcoming us “home”.  The security guy at the Stamford who did the same thing as we stepped off the bus.

It was clear some of my fellow passengers were semi-bewildered by the two-metre-high security barriers across the hotel forecourt, and the number of uniformed people including police. Most intimidating was the amount of staff in PPE. They wore a face shield, mask, blue latex gloves and plastic raincoat-style gowns. I had a flashback to the Hollywood movie Contagion.

The security fence at the end of the Stamford Plaza forecourt (Photo: Trevor McKewen)

I had mentally prepared myself for what to expect. In my column about quarantine in Australia, I noted how security in the Queensland quarantine hotels was significantly stiffer than in New Zealand (you couldn’t leave your room. Period. Not even for exercise). From news reports, I was aware of those who had absconded here and the drama that had caused.

As I got off the bus, I peered across the hotel forecourt to the southern end of the Albert Street entrance where Old Mate apparently slipped through the barricades for his infamous 40-minute jolly, including a trip to Countdown in Victoria Street.

Not a chance now. I noted two security personnel manning that end as well as the northern end of the forecourt, and another four dotted along the hotel entrance steps. Plus several police as well.

I’m now six days into my quarantine and those security measures and presence are still there 24/7. Anybody trying to make a dash from the forecourt would surely suffer the same fate as the streaker tackled by Crusaders player Braydon Ennor last Saturday night.

There is also security on each floor. Outside my sixth floor room, one of them sits on a chair, guarding the fire exit stairs. Another is stationed by the lift.

The key difference between here and Australia is that you are allowed out of your room. There’s a good dose of humanity in that concession. Not seeing another human face or interacting with anybody other than through a screen for two weeks is more challenging than you’d imagine.

You can leave your room provided you are wearing your mask, travel in the lift alone and sanitise your hands constantly (there is sanitiser outside and in the lifts and all through the lobby).

In the lobby, there is a perpetual police presence along with security and medical staff.

Stamford Plaza’s Albert St entrance where, on July 7, someone slipped out to go to Countdown. The entrance is now heavily barricaded and guarded (Photo: Trevor McKewen)

Exercise is restricted to the hotel forecourt which pre-Covid was occupied by taxi cabs, mini-buses and cars dropping off and picking up hotel guests but is now a pacing ground for mask-wearing shufflers desperate for fresh air and to keep the kilos from piling up. The less physically-inclined look on with an air of detached bemusement while they chug on ciggies or chat at a distance with others.

Social distancing is strictly enforced. I saw one security guy zealously swoop on a trio of adults smoking and chatting in close proximity. He requested proof of their claim they were in the same bubble.

Anybody who walks outside the giant electronic sliding glass doors into the forecourt is required to give their room number and name to a manned desk right alongside it. You check-in with them upon returning. It is impossible to “disappear”.

Every person receives a Covid test on day three. You get a phone call and you go down to one of the Stamford’s giant conference rooms which have been repurposed as a tested facility.

I have been searching for reasons to complain about our treatment but there aren’t any really. I know how lucky I am. There are just minor irritants.

Unlike Australia, you can’t order alcohol in from the likes of a Glengarrys, although you can order UberEats if you’re dissatisfied with the free hotel meals. It may be different at other isolation centres but any alcohol has to be ordered through room service. At $35 for a bottle of wine you could pick up at Countdown for half that, and $9 each for a beer (and the hotel decides how much you’re allowed to order), I’m on an enforced Dry July fortnight out of principle. But I also have some understanding of why the less disciplined of us ponder a breakout to a liquor store that doesn’t want your firstborn and inheritance in return for a quiet tipple.

The entrance of the Stamford Plaza being sanitised by staff (Photo: Trevor McKewen)

I miss my running, being able to have a surf and the full menu of Sky Sport (the Plaza has only two Sky channels and they don’t include the Warriors and the rest of the NRL of which I am a tragic fan).

But the staff are so friendly and kind here which I find remarkable. I developed hypertension while I was away and I am visited twice a day by two on-site PPE-clothed nurses who take my blood pressure and keep me sane. A GP monitors my progress daily. I don’t have to pay for any of it, including my meds.

I take umbrage at anybody who suggests two weeks in a five-star hotel is a jaunt and anyone who complains is out of order. Walk a mile in our shoes buddy. The hours drag. The boredom factor is a killer. Groundhog day seems to go on forever.

But it is all made easier by those onsite (I couldn’t contemplate doing this every day for a job and my hat is tipped to these essential workers) and the communal attitude that we’re all in this together.

It’s reinforced when I check in with my daily Washington Post subscription and recoil at the seething mess Trump has created in the US along with that other irresponsible idiot in Brazil. I feel so lucky and grateful when I see what is going on in other parts of the world around this bloody virus.

The journalist in me is embarrassed by the media overreaction and the human in me is appalled at National’s political point-scoring around the handful of 30,000 plus people who have gone through the quarantine process without complaint or trying to slip away.

I don’t like that I have effectively lost a month of the past six weeks in isolation. But my personal circumstances are trivial compared to 99% of people in the same situation around the rest of the globe.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through this it’s that kindness and empathy are important qualities for all humans to have. New Zealand has it in abundance.

Keep going!