Coronavirus: Emergency call won't change NZ's response - health officials

The Ministry of Health says Friday morning's announcement of a global health emergency over the coronavirus outbreak won't change the way they've been handling it to date.

So far 212 people have been killed by 2019-nCov, all in China, while 8000 have been infected - most in China, but cases have been reported in Germany, the US and Japan.

There have been no confirmed infections in New Zealand yet, but the Institute of Environmental Science has begun testing suspected cases, all of them so far coming up negative.

No formal travel restrictions have been put in place from China, and the Ministry of Health on Friday said there were no plans to change that at this stage.

"We have acted very much in line with WHO advice, and will continue to do so in accordance with our very well-developed pandemic plan," said Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield.

What the emergency means for NZ

On Friday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced a global health emergency, fearing what might happen if the virus reached a country with a poor health system.

But what does that mean?

"The principal consequence is the WHO Director-General is able to formally issue temporary recommendations around this particular disease - the novel coronavirus - under the 2005 international health regulations," said Dr Bloomfield. 

Ashley Bloomfield.
Ashley Bloomfield. Photo credit: Newshub.

"The emergency committee provided specific advice... that we should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance - that's essentially looking for cases, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread... and share data with WHO.

"One of the key outcomes of this decision is it effectively formalises the international cooperation and it places a requirement on countries - who are all signatories to the international health regulations - to provide data to, and report to WHO on their actions to help deal with it."

Dr Tedros said there was "no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade". But there's little to stop countries blocking flights from China or other countries that may develop widespread infection. 

But Dr Bloomfield said any country that does shut its borders or implement other restrictions on travel is required to justify their decision to the WHO.

"Countries are able to make their own decisions as part of their evidence-based response, but they will need to explain the basis of those decisions to the WHO. That's an obligation."

The National Party has called for border officials to have more screening powers, and ACT has urged Health Minister David Clark to consider stopping flights from China altogether. 

But Dr Bloomfield said that won't be happening just yet.

"As we have over the last week or two, we will be updating our advice and reconsidering that on a daily basis. At this point, we will leave the same measures in place."

He said anyone who's been to China recently - particularly Wuhan or Hubei - in the last two weeks should "self-isolate... on the basis there is some small amount of evidence that people may be able to transmit the virus before they are symptomatic".

Flying Kiwis, Pacific Islanders out of Wuhan

New Zealand officials are trying to organise flights to get Kiwis in Wuhan out. Dr Bloomfield said it's likely if there are available seats, they'll be offered to anyone from our Pacific neighbours.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Friday "good progress" is being made on getting the flight organised.

"We, of course, have to make sure that we wait until we've got clearance on the ground to move New Zealand citizens. We have had a few countries manage to extract but that is sometimes taking them up to a week."

We're moving as quickly as we can - we've secured the plane, we're working through the screening that will have to happen on the ground. But it's very important we get that right and also that we get clearance from Chinese authorities."

More than 100 people have registered for the flight, which will be aboard an Air NZ plane.