Epidemiologist Michael Baker calls for better COVID-19 testing of aircrew

A leading Kiwi epidemiologist is calling on the Government to ensure all airline crew travelling internationally are tested for COVID-19.

It comes after the Minister of Health Chris Hipkins has said for over a week he would update the rules for aircrew, but he's yet to do so.

University of Otago professor of public health Michael Baker says airline crew are a risk as they could potentially have had contact with people infected with coronavirus.

He says we should be testing all aircrew regularly to identify asymptomatic people. 

"Over time it would give us an idea how many of the people returning who work in this occupational group are actually infected so we learn a lot more about the level of risk".

The current risk-based system means most aircrew aren't tested, let alone stood down for 48 hours.

Those who stay overnight in any international airside hotel, are classified as low-risk aircrews and do not currently need to be tested or go into isolation on return to New Zealand.

Medium risk crew are those who have been overseas for two nights or less, regardless of the country they visited.

While overseas they must have had their transport and accomodation controlled, but they could still visit public places including the supermarket.

For medium risk aircrew there is still no test or isolation required on return.

Those who are at high risk are aircrew who were overseas longer than two nights, or had any stay where accomodation and transport couldn't be controlled.

They're the only ones who have to self isolate for 48 hours before being tested for COVID-19.

But the rules say those "high risk" aircrew are allowed to catch a public domestic flight to get to their home, to do their 48 hours of isolation. Professor Baker says that's "unacceptable".

"We need to wait for that negative test before they have contact with people in New Zealand."

Last Tuesday, Minister of Health Chris Hipkins said he'd update the rules as soon as possible.

"By the end of the week I will issue another order," he said.

However, 10 days later, he's still "working things through" with airlines.

"One of the things that we do not want to do is end up with no airlines flying in and out of New Zealand," he said. 

The Government says that it "hopes" to have more to say early next week.