Coronavirus: Border officials 'turning a blind eye' to potential carriers, traveller claims

A Kiwi who fears she may have been exposed to the coronavirus in Italy says it's "insane" she was waved through Customs at Auckland Airport without any concern from officials.

Italy has the third-highest number of confirmed cases in the world, behind only China - where COVID-19 started - and South Korea. More than 1100 have been infected and at least 29 have died so far.

Lagi Paul, a 20-year-old au pair, arrived in Milan on February 1, planning to stay there for a year. But her stay was cut short when the virus arrived in her adopted home.

"On Saturday morning I woke up thinking it was just another day - my worst worry was suitcases that I left in Switzerland," she told Newshub. 

"Later on that day I and couple of other au pairs, we were going to see a friend in Sesto San Giovanni. Catching the metro, we didn't really know what was going on. I wasn't really paying too much attention to the coronavirus.

"We got there and my friend turned around and said to us 'Look, there's a case here in Sesto, a confirmed case. And my host mother texted saying there were two confirmed cases in Milan, be careful not to go on public transport. Then my mum called, she was worried, my grandparents were worried at home."

She looked it up, and discovered there had been 79 confirmed cases. The next day - last Sunday - that number had almost doubled to 136. Paul said supermarkets had started to be cleared out by panic-buyers - like we saw in New Zealand this weekend - and schools were starting to be closed down.

"That night I spoke to my host family, and they said, 'Do whatever makes you and your family feel at ease.' I spoke to my parents and they said, 'Look, it's only going to get worse from here - you should go home while you still can.'"

Three weeks after she arrived in Italy, Paul booked a flight home. Immigration NZ told her to tell Customs she'd been in Milan. On arrival in New Zealand, she did just that, and was directed to Healthline officials.

"They said, 'Have you been to mainland China or Iran recently?' I said, 'No, but I just came from Milan and I was in the Veneto region as well - two hotspots in Italy.'

Paul requested a test for the virus, which has killed nearly 3000 people worldwide.

"They said, 'You do not fit the criteria, and you don't need to self-isolate either,' which I found ridiculous because I was in the hotspot there, you know? The fact they told me not to even self-isolate, it was a bit crazy."

Paul told Newshub she lives with her 86-year-old grandfather. The virus disproportionately hits the elderly - an estimated 15 to 20 percent of all 80-year-olds who contract the disease die from it, while there have been no recorded deaths in children under 10. Studies show the younger you are, the more likely you are to survive.

"They didn't really give me any information, they didn't tell me to do anything - they said to go on and live my life as normal," said Paul. "I live in the same house as my 86-year-old grandfather - I need to think about these kinds of things." 

New Zealand has placed restrictions on travellers from Iran and China, but not Italy and South Korea, both of which have had more confirmed cases of the virus than Iran.

"Just imagine the number of people coming from the Lombardy region and just Europe in general, because it's spreading like wildfire there," said Paul. "New Zealand is just turning a blind eye to it."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Saturday said officials' response to the arrival of COVID-19 in New Zealand has been "textbook", and microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles told Newshub our pandemic plan is "working well" so far.

Newshub has contacted health officials for a response.