COVID-19: Newshub investigation reveals authorities were close to losing control during August coronavirus outbreak

A Newshub investigation has discovered authorities came close to losing control of a COVID-19 outbreak in Auckland four months ago.

The initial handling of the August outbreak has been described by experts as "totally unacceptable". The revelations offer a stark contrast to official messages given to the public at the time.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Auckland's move to alert level 3 on August 11 after the community case of an Americold worker.

Official information from around this time shows New Zealand's biggest public health unit in Auckland struggled to keep up. 

The District Health Board was "too slow" to get enough staff to do contact tracing, and many staff they did get had "no training and no experience". 

Staff were also overwhelmed and "working long hours" even though they were only dealing with a handful of new COVID-19 cases each day. 

At the time, however, then-Health Minister Chris Hipkins publicly said contact tracing systems were "performing well". 

As cases grew in the first few days, a graph shows the Auckland DHB did not have enough contact tracing staff to keep up, even when only dealing with a maximum caseload of just 14 new cases a day. 

"In their own words, in this documentation, they show how unprepared they were and that's a real concern," Otago University Professor Nick Wilson told Newshub.

The information obtained by Newshub shows:

  • Workers were "unclear who staff were reporting to".
  • The response time to provide extra staff "was too slow by 8 days". 
  • They worked "unsustainable long hours" and the quality of their work "was reduced". 
  • Māori and Pacific support teams were "not engaged promptly", even though nearly half of all contacts during the August outbreak were Pasifika.  

Prof Wilson says New Zealand could have lost control and ended up with an outbreak like Victoria's. 

"There is no excuse not to be better prepared. 

"In the months before we could see what was happening with the outbreak in Australia. That was a quarantine failure so we knew large outbreaks were possible.

"We do need a highly transparent system which engenders trust."

However, mid outbreak, on August 15, as the DHB was struggling, Hipkins said teams were coping well.

"I can say the contact tracing systems are not only holding up, [but] they are [also] performing as well, if not better than we expected them to," said Hipkins, now the COVID-19 Response Minister.

National MP Chris Bishop says Hipkins needs to be upfront with the public.

"Chris Hipkins really needs to be upfront with the public about why he was painting such a rosy picture of what was going on, when in reality, behind the scenes, things were far from rosy."

The lack of public health staff in August was evident, despite infectious diseases expert Asysha Verral's report warning four months earlier that "expansion of the public health workforce is an urgent need".

The Auckland DHB does not accept it almost lost control but says lessons have been learned. 

We know that we have a stonger core base of teams of people in order to respond immediately," Auckland Regional Public Health Director William Rainger said.

Prof Wilson's colleague Professor Michael Baker says having robust systems and trained teams is more important now than it ever was. 

"We may be going on holiday, but the virus isn't going on holiday."

He says the risk is only increasing as more people come across the border for Christmas and people get more complacent. 

"In fact, we may be entering our most dangerous stage, because at the moment the pandemic is getting more intense around the globe."

And as it gets more intense, he says we must be ready for another outbreak.

In a statement, Hipkins did not say why he made those comments that all was well when it clearly wasn't. 

But he did say the system was tested and there were a number of complexities to deal with. It's expected such issues with contact tracing capacity raised by Newshub will form part of a review into the August outbreak. 

The Government has a copy of that review but it has not released it publicly.

However, the minister says he's confident New Zealand now has a system that's ready to upscale. 

And the DHB says it now has three trained teams ready to respond, seven days a week. 

The Health Ministry says there was an "initial lag" in scaling up the response but says the August outbreak was "complex" due to the high number of contacts that needed to be traced and isolated. 

On August 20, in the middle of when the DHB was struggling, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield described the contact tracing system as "in good shape". 

A Ministry of Health spokesperson says his comments were made when a range of measures were being put in place to support the Auckland Regional Public Health Service.