Coronavirus: Another lockdown possible if complacency, border 'failures' continue - Sir David Skegg

New Zealand could face another lockdown if COVID-19 complacency and border "failures" continue, a top health professor says.

Sir David Skegg, an Otago University Emeritus Professor of epidemiology and public health, believes six border incursions in three months is "serious". He's also called for the immediate release of the Government's testing report - information submitted to the Health Minister weeks ago.

It follows the country's latest community case - a health worker at managed isolation facility Sudima Christchurch Airport whose positive case was confirmed on Monday.

This case was described by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfied as an example of  "the system working", but Sir David doesn't agree.

"This is the sixth case we've had in three months of the virus escaping through the border and it's clearly a failure of infection control," he told Newshub.

The six "failures" since August 1 are:

  • What became known as the 'Auckland August cluster', which started with an Americold worker on August 11. The source remains unknown. 
  • A maintenance worker who caught the virus from a guest at the Rydges Hotel whose infection was confirmed on August 18
  • A nurse who became infected on September 13 while working at Jet Park quarantine facility
  • A returnee caught COVID-19 at the Crowne Plaza in Christchurch on September 23, and it's believed the source was a rubbish bin. Six people linked to that case tested positive.
  • A marine engineer became infected on October 18 after working on a foreign vessel
  • The health worker at the Sudima is the sixth. A colleague of that worker has also been confirmed to have the virus.

Sir David said this latest case is one that should be treated seriously.

"Obviously there's a risk of transmission into the community and given our general level of complacency in New Zealand, I think sooner or later we are going to have the risk of another lockdown," he said.

"It's impossible to say [how likely another lockdown is], but it is worrying and I think very surprising how many of these incursions we're having."

What also surprised him was the double-bunking of the Russian and Ukrainian mariners, who tested positive for COVID-19 days after arriving in New Zealand while in quarantine.

"In Christchurch, we've got a hotel full of people from Russia, which has a very high incidence of infection. They're being double bedded, which actually contravenes the principles of quarantine. So we had quite a predictable and very unsatisfactory situation."

Dr Bloomfield said on Tuesday he's going to review double-bunking and added it hadn't been done before, although he noted there were family units in managed isolation.

"When he says he's going to review it, I hope that's a polite way of saying he's going to stop it. I would certainly expect that," Sir David said.

He wants to know where there are such failures, and said a review should start with the public release of the Heather Simpson and Brian Roche testing report. That work was ordered after Newshub in August revealed woeful testing of border-facing staff.

"I think that given the government is trying to be transparent about these matters, no [I don't think it's good enough]. I think it should be publicly available and I would like to see what actions are being taken," he said.

Overall, he said New Zealand is doing well in dealing with the coronavirus, but he's worried about the dwindling use of the COVID Tracer App and masks no longer being compulsory on buses and planes. 

He says masks not being mandatory in such settings is a "sad omission", adding that it would have been "a sensible precaution" even at level one. 

He also wants weekly testing for all border-facing workers, not just those deemed high risk. 

"Sooner or later, our luck is going to run out and I think there's a real risk of a lockdown if we don't change things now," he said.

"How many wake up calls do we need? We've had six in three months."

It's a call of urgency from our top epidemiologist - so we can avoid any further disruption as we head into Christmas.