Revealed: The strict new coronavirus rules for New Zealand's COVID-19 Defence Force staff

Newshub can reveal the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) has introduced a raft of new rules for its COVID-19 workforce.

They include a curfew, alcohol restrictions and protective measures to manage risk around how staff interact. 

It follows the emergence of the November quarantine cluster, which began when an NZDF worker at the Jet Park Hotel, Auckland's quarantine facility, was infected.

A top public health expert thinks it's a good move, but wants the Government to do more to address the bigger risks.  

Reporting for a tour of duty, COVID-19 style. Destination: the Waldorf Apartments.

This is where our NZDF personnel are based before fanning out across Auckland's 18 isolation and quarantine hotels. When their shift is over, they return to the Waldorf to sleep or relax.

But their stay is subject to strict rules, introduced after an NZDF worker at Jet Park, called Case A, got COVID-19. Five other people linked to this case have since tested positive.

"Well, I am concerned that unless we rapidly improve things, we are going to have more border failures because the system has just got too many persisting weaknesses," said Professor Nick Wilson, of Otago University's Department of Public Health.

The NZDF has moved to improve things. Case A visited a bar and bottle store in Auckland's CBD while infectious. 

The new rules include:

  • A curfew and alcohol restrictions. NZDF personnel can now only drink at their apartment, not at bars in town.

  • Risk assessments for meetings between NZDF COVID-19 staff and other regular NZDF staff.

  • Risk assessments when staff are off-duty and leave COVID-19 facilities.

With so many personnel living together, there are also new rules governing health and hygiene, covering everything from building access to uniform washing.

These include:

  • Compulsory mask use while travelling between facilities.

  • 'Structured accommodation' so high-risk staff or those who are sick can be separated.

  • Risk assessments when their tour of duty ends.

Prof Wilson says these are all good infection control steps, but they still don't go far enough. 

He says the Government should urgently focus on stopping COVID-19 at the source, and have both pre-flight testing for those coming to New Zealand from high-risk countries and better quarantine of high-risk travellers, like using an airbase.

"Around the world, the burden of COVID-19 is getting worse, so we can expect more travellers returning to New Zealand who are infected," Prof Wilson said.

And he's calling for another key change: increased testing. Currently, Jet Park Hotel quarantine staff get weekly tests, whereas everyone else working in managed isolation hotels only get tests every fortnight. 

"We really need to have weekly testing for all border staff," he said.

There are 990 NZDF staff in total committed to Operation Protect - a dedicated contingent with military precision. 

But public health experts say our COVID-19 safeguards could be even stronger. The changes to alcohol rules for NZDF personnel effectively means a ban is in place for after-work drinks at pubs or clubs.

In a statement, Group Captain Glenn Gowthorpe told Newshub the Auckland security contingent "pride themselves on providing a professional and reassuring presence" at the various isolation and quarantine hotels.

He said it's "to ensure our personnel maintain awareness about social distancing and self-protection requirements".

Chris Hipkins' office told Newshub that despite repeated calls for weekly testing from top public health experts, he's "satisfied" with the current arrangements. 

However, the COVID-19 Response Minister has changed his position on the testing regime several times over the past few months. 

He says processes to keep safe are constantly under review, and he's still looking at the use of N-95 masks in certain environments.