Coronavirus: Ports of Auckland accuses Government of 'significant failings' after COVID-19 cases

New Zealand's biggest port has sharply criticised the Government's lack of COVID-19 rules for international shipping crew, and together with Tauranga Port has introduced its own rules. 

Ports of Auckland told customers in an advisory, obtained by Newshub, that recent positive cases represent "significant failings".

Foreign ships manned by foreign crew are critical to trade, but swapping crews on these vessels represent an obvious risk.

Current rules mean foreign crew can fly into Auckland and travel to a port to board a ship without mandatory testing or any isolation. 

"We see crew transfer as a weak point, so we've acted immediately to close that," Matt Ball, General Manager of Public Relations and Communications at Ports of Auckland.

"What we've done is introduced a rule that crew can only transfer if they've undergone 14 days of managed isolation beforehand."

The requirement, which includes double tests while in isolation, was implemented after the Auckland marine engineer tested positive after working on the Sofrana Surville. Also on deck that day were eight Filipino seafarers, who'd just flown in and boarded the ship without a test or isolation.

In an advisory, the Ports of Auckland told its customers: "We had thought that the New Zealand authorities had a robust process in place for international crew exchanges, but this case has identified some significant failings." 

In the advisory, it states that the New Zealand authorities need to tighten up the crew change process and that this point has been made very clear at the highest levels.

"We found a gap like this. We plugged it immediately and we think the Government should act immediately to follow suit," Ball said.

However, the group representing foreign vessels say the port's decision could impact international trade.

"Ship owners simply won't want to pay the added expense of 14 days isolation, which could amount to ship owners not wanting to come to New Zealand," said Billy Preston, NZ Shipping Agents and Ship Owners Association President.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins has indicated mandatory testing of all foreign crew could be announced this week - although his position on isolation remains unclear. 

But the ports see both as key to protecting us - and our Pacific neighbours. 

"It's really important to keep COVID out of the Pacific, and we can help do that," Ball said.

Hundreds of international crew have already arrived in New Zealand without mandatory tests or isolation. 

Immigration New Zealand told Newshub 466 replacement cargo ship crew visas have been approved since August 10.

324 foreign crew have already arrived in New Zealand. The remaining 142 are yet to arrive. 

The failure to test high risk workers, including port, airport and quarantine workers was first highlighted by Newshub on August 13 - almost two months after a testing strategy was announced.

On August 17, when questioned about the lack of testing of quarantine workers, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said officials didn't know testing rates were not up to scratch.  

"No one of course said to us at any point, that I recall, that what we asked for was not happening," Ardern said.

However, newly released documents show Cabinet did know.

An August 7 briefing told Ministers weekly testing of quarantine workers hadn't started and only 12 of 2,100 port workers had been tested.

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister says issues with testing of border staff have now been rectified.