Coronavirus: Calls for immediate weekly testing of port workers amid serious concerns over lack of rules for foreign ship crews

There are serious concerns about continued gaps in the system when it comes to Kiwi port workers and international shipping crew. 

There are now calls for weekly testing of high-risk port workers, with a public health expert, the Maritime Union and Ports of Auckland saying there are still issues with our COVID-19 response system.

The issues have prompted Ports of Auckland to take measures into its own hands and implement its own rules.  

Our sea port workforce is critical to ensuring the movement of cargo. Those doing high-risk jobs, like those boarding foreign vessels, get tests fortnightly. 

"So at the time we put that system in place, the risk assessment was that fortnightly would be appropriate," said Health Minister Chris Hipkins.

That fortnightly system remained in place on Friday - and there are calls for immediate change. 

"High-risk border workers - those who have contact with infected and potentially infectious people - should be tested weekly," said Professor Michael Baker, of Otago University's Public Health Department.

Up until Friday, foreign seafarers coming here to do crew swaps have been flying in, staying for a night or two at a managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) hotels, and then travelling to the port to get on their vessel. 

No testing or 14 days isolation is required at all. 

On Friday, the Health Minister tweaked the rules - but only for international ship crew who have to wait to board a vessel after landing in Auckland. 

"Those who are staying in managed isolation, who are stopping at the airport or near the airport and staying for a period of time, will now be tested," he said.

But such tinkering is not seen as solid enough - and the Ports of Auckland has decided to implement its own rules. 

A spokesperson told Newshub it's now decided it will not allow any international crew member to board a ship unless they've first successfully completed 14 days in isolation. 

Professor Baker says current rules are not strict enough. 

"If they are infected, they may get on a ship and then infect other crew members on that ship," he said. "New Zealand could actually be contributing to the burden of illness of ship crew."

A port manager, who asked not to be named, agrees.

"It's a big gap and it's caused purely by a lack of understanding of the process of the vessel's crew change," they said. "We're just playing with fire here."

The Health Minister says foreign crew who don't stay in a hotel but go directly from the airport to their ship don't need a test. 

That's because he says the ship then leaves the country, but the Ports of Auckland and our source says that's not correct. 

"The Minister said the ship sails, but that's not always the case."

He says they can sometimes stay in port for days, or even travel to other ports, before leaving - and that, he says, is a serious risk.