Coronavirus: Grieving new arrival calls out ministry for COVID-19 exemption process, says Novotel guests 'held against will'

Left - Sujay Bhindi; Right - The MoH letter and mask left outside Novotel guests' rooms following the new case confirmations.
Left - Sujay Bhindi; Right - The MoH letter and mask left outside Novotel guests' rooms following the new case confirmations. Photo credit: Supplied

A man who returned to New Zealand to visit his now-deceased father is irate as he faces possibly weeks in mandatory quarantine following the confirmation of two new COVID-19 cases, who were housed at the same managed isolation facility in Auckland. 

Sujay Bhindi, a New Zealand citizen residing in Brisbane, arrived in the country on Sunday after being granted an isolation exemption to visit his dying father in Auckland. However, his father passed away before Bhindi's flight had even left the tarmac. 

Now, Bhindi and other new arrivals housed at the Novotel hotel in Ellerslie have been placed in lockdown following the confirmation of two new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, both of whom were housed at the same managed isolation facility. As a result of the new infections, which come after weeks of no new cases, all isolation exemptions have been scrapped - meaning Bhindi is now unable to plan or attend his father's funeral. 

The man is devastated as he must now carry out the remainder of his 14-day mandatory isolation period under lockdown, unable to properly grieve the loss of his father. Speaking to Newshub on Wednesday, Bhindi also expressed outrage at both Novotel and the Ministry of Health, saying he is "angry, stressed and agitated" at how the situation has unfolded. 

In an impassioned email, Bhindi claimed guests are being "held against their will" at the hotel following the confirmation of the two new cases, with new arrivals unable to take exercise or get fresh air under the strict lockdown measures. After the announcement, all guests were instructed to remain in their rooms, receiving a letter from the ministry outside their door outlining the situation.

"I'm not only angry, I'm stressed, I'm grieving. I'm getting very agitated," he told Newshub on Wednesday.

Bhindi is also extremely critical of the isolation facility's service and hygiene standards. Upon his arrival, he noticed a belt had been left behind - an item that could possibly be contaminated if the previous guest had COVID-19. He says he has not eaten dinner for the last three nights due to the hotel failing to accommodate his dietary requirements. Staff have refused to allow his brother - who has been living in Auckland - to deliver food to the security gates. 

"When I was putting my clothes in the wardrobe, someone else's belt was there. The wall was stained... my question is, how has cleaning and hygiene been practiced here [sic]? This hotel is specifically for quarantine purposes, so it should have been [cleaned to meet] COVID-19 specifications," Bhindi told Newshub.

"PPE has only been [implemented] as of yesterday. Until then, there were UberEats [delivery drivers] coming into the hotel - nothing, absolutely nothing. [I wonder] how many other people's [health] has been compromised due to the negligence of this hotel and the ministry."

Bhindi says despite raising his concerns multiple times with hotel staff, communication has been poor and he has not been offered another room.

"I'm still in this room. I don't feel safe.

"The taxpayers' money is getting wasted by the Ministry of Health assigning the Novotel group to be the quarantine centre."

On Tuesday afternoon, guests received a letter from the Ministry of Health and a face mask outside their doors, explaining the confirmation of the new cases.

"Straight away, all the staff are wearing masks now," Bhindi said. "We're in complete lockdown... we can't go for a walk, I can't have a smoke... we can't open the windows to get fresh air. I'm stressed and I'm a smoker, so I have to ring the reception - if they pick up the phone - and ask what time I can go for my smoke."

The letter requests all new arrivals to "remain in [their] rooms as a precautionary measure".

"Your meals will be delivered as usual but please be aware that we have had to suspend supermarket and food deliveries for the time being," says the letter, signed by the ministry's regional health lead Jo Elvidge.

"We are also unable to allow guests to leave the facility at this time for any reason; if you were due to check out either today or tomorrow, your stay will be extended while testing is undertaken."

'Angry, stressed, grieving' 

Bhindi has also expressed frustration at the Ministry of Health's exemption process, saying his initial application to see his father took "far too long", costing him invaluable time with his dying dad. 

Following his father's death on Sunday, the "change in circumstances" meant Bhindi's original application was invalid. Upon his arrival, he began filling out new paperwork for an exemption to hold a funeral service, including an appropriate isolation plan and obtaining a letter from the funeral service provider. 

Bhindi has now been left devastated following the ministry cancelling all further exemptions following the confirmation of the two new cases, who left the Novotel on June 13 to travel to a funeral in Wellington after being granted a compassionate exemption.

"I'm feeling very angry... I didn't get a chance to see my dad because of the delays in the whole process. I'm super angry now because I won't get a chance to say goodbye to him," Bhindi said. "I wish it was as simple as going to a chapel and have a sandwich and go home, but [Hindu funerals] don't happen that way. Following the funeral there's rituals. I need to be there for every part of the rituals."

Despite volunteering to undergo a swab test upon arrival, Bhindi has yet to be tested for COVID-19. 

After arriving at Auckland Airport on Sunday, no public health measures were observed at the border, Bhindi claims. He and other arrivals were directed to a shuttle to take them to Novotel, where he had a temperature check. Aside from that, no further processes were observed. 

According to the letter provided to the Novotel quests, all new arrivals and on-site staff will be tested for the virus within the next 24 hours.

Newshub attempted to contact Accor, the group that owns Novotel, for comment. However, the spokesperson referred the reporter to Auckland Council, who also had no comment and told the reporter to get in touch with the Ministry of Health.

The Ministry of Health has been contacted for comment but did not respond to Newshub before the time of publishing.