Coronavirus: Kiwis urged to remember frontline border staff working under 'stressful' conditions as restrictions ease

As restrictions begin easing in Auckland after the latest COVID-19 outbreak, Kiwis are being encouraged to show support for border and isolation facility staff continuing to work at what's described as essentially "level 4 conditions".

After nearly three-weeks in lockdown, Auckland late on Sunday night moved to alert level 2, allowing greater freedom to travel, for bubbles to burst, and more mingling between friends.

However, restrictions remain tight at the border with strict protocols in place for Kiwis returning home to New Zealand, including a 14-day stay in a managed isolation or quarantine facility.

The Public Service Association (PSA) - a union which represents employees from organisations like Customs, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), and the Aviation Security Service - is reminding Kiwis to think of the staff who continue to work on the frontline of our defence to COVID-19.

With employees responsible for everything from ensuring returnees safely move through airport terminals to testing guests in isolation facilities, the PSA says these workers have spent the past six months facing potential infection, protected by their commitment to health and safety procedures.

"The workers have been effectively working at level 4 conditions for the last six months. They have to be really careful in their workplaces, they have to be really careful when they go home," national secretary Glenn Barclay told Newshub.

"It's quite stressful and on top of all of that, you have got all the political criticism of the whole process. That has been really stressful for these workers."

Barclay said these staff members are doing the "heavy lifting for all of us" to ensure COVID-19 doesn't get out of isolation facilities and into the New Zealand community. 

In response, the PSA has set up an online tool for Kiwis to leave messages of support for the workers. People are also encouraged to show gratitude to the workers if they come in contact with them during travel.

"They are doing a really important job, they are doing a really hard job, and they are doing it under a lot of pressure. So, here is an opportunity for people to show their support for these workers," Barclay said.

He said prior to the most recent lockdown, when New Zealand was at alert level 1, many New Zealanders became complacent, forgetting that COVID-19 raged on beyond the border while cases were also popping up in isolation facilities. 

Barclay wants Kiwis to remember while they can return to a level of normality, others can't - and it may be that way for some time to come. 

"It is clear that for quite some time yet we are going to need to rely on people working at the borders, people working at managed isolation and quarantine, to keep us safe," he said. "We just need to realise that we owe these people a lot."

Over the past month, the Government has been questioned on if procedures it has asked to be implemented at the border or in isolation facilities have been followed through on. That's included whether all border workers are tested as Cabinet instructed, and if guests are properly separated. Recently, there has also been concern people travelling out of Auckland during lockdown weren't being adequately screened.

The PSA said in a statement it's fair for questions to be asked about how the pandemic response can be improved, "but we urge New Zealanders to have empathy for the men and women doing their best to keep us safe".

It said delegates have supported the drive to comprehensively test all border and managed isolation staff, which Newshub revealed in August wasn't occurring as the Cabinet expected. The union believes recent events highlight the need for cooperation and coordination between Government agencies involved in the pandemic response.

Following revelations that not all symptomatic and asymptomatic workers were being tested, the Government created a new health team - co-chaired by Heather Simpson and Sir Brian Roche - to support the testing strategy. 

MBIE will also begin directly employing managed isolation guards - phasing out the use of private security - in a bid to raise accountability and "give more central control over procedures". More New Zealand Defence Force staff will also be brought in to help.