New Zealand to quarantine people 'for months, maybe years' as COVID-19 rages around world - epidemiologist Michael Baker

A leading epidemiologist says "thousands of people" will continue to go through a 14-day stint in isolation facilities for months - and possibly years - into the future.

University of Otago professor of public health Michael Baker's appearance on Newshub Nation on Saturday comes after multiple cases of people breaking out of their facilities.

Prof Baker says while New Zealand is doing "exceptionally well" so far, we need to be prepared for a "long-term risk management challenge".

"Mistakes happen, and we have to learn from them and improve our systems so we don't repeat those errors," he tells host Simon Shepherd.

"We're going to have thousands of people sitting in these facilities, quarantined in isolation facilities for months, maybe years ahead.

"Sensible risk management says when a mistake happens you figure out what went wrong, and you improve the system."

The latest escapee, a person in their 60s, broke the window of the Waipuna Hotel in Auckland on Friday and climbed out of the building. They then scaled the fence and began to knock on the doors of neighbouring homes.

Their escape is the fourth since last Saturday, when a woman scaled two fences to escape from Auckland's Pullman Hotel. She was out of isolation for more than an hour. 

On Tuesday, a 32-year-old man snuck through a gap in the Stamford Plaza fencing and visited an inner-city supermarket. The following day he tested positive for COVID-19. 

The third person to have allegedly escaped from managed isolation was Martin James McVicar. He allegedly absconded from the Distinction Hotel in Hamilton on Thursday evening before entering a nearby liquor store and reportedly buying a four-pack of Leffe Blonde and a bottle of pinot noir.

Prof Baker says we need to look at why these people feel the need to escape from the isolation facilities.

"Sometimes, it's people have problems with all the stress. They may have psychiatric illness. They may have a substance addiction - nicotine, alcohol or something else. And so we need to identify ways of avoiding that problem," he tells Shepherd.

"If you look at nicotine, for instance, we could have nicotine replacement therapy provided, or they should be asked to talk with their doctor before they come, and it should be explained that they will be in their room for four days, and that they need that treatment.

"And for instance, I mean, many smokers are used to going on long-haul flights, and they may switch to patches for example."

On Thursday, ACT leader David Seymour said the Government needs to start profiling travellers based on their risk of absconding - especially looking at those with criminal records.

"The vast majority of people entering New Zealand will pose absolutely no risk of absconding from managed isolation and quarantine facilities," he said in a statement.

"But a tiny minority will be a risk. The Government should be using the information at its disposal to figure out who those travellers are most likely to be and place them under tighter security."

Prof Baker suggests this could be a good idea.

"I think that should be looked at," he says.

"I mean, we should learn from best practice internationally about this, because it's all about a system to minimise the risk of errors at the border."

Pandemic accelerating

This week, the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said the pandemic is getting worse around the world.

"In most of the world, the virus is not under control. It is getting worse... more than 544,000 lives have been lost," said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

"The pandemic is still accelerating. The total number of cases has doubled in the last six weeks."

Prof Baker agrees, warning the pandemic is "just getting started" and we can't afford to be complacent.

"This virus has the potential to infect half the world's population or more over the next one to two years. So that's billions of people, maybe four billion people," he tells Shepherd.

"We've seen that mistakes will happen. We can look at Victoria, we can look at other countries that have had setbacks, so we know that we don't want to go there. So we have to pay huge attention to our systems, and make sure they're really up to scratch."