Coronavirus: Epidemiologists call for removing smoking, exercise areas in managed isolation facilities

Two public health experts have called for even tougher measures at the border, including removing smoking and exercise areas at our managed isolation hotels. 

The Government announced on Tuesday that from next week, almost all travellers to New Zealand must produce a negative test before boarding a plane home. Most Pacific Island nations, Australia, and people landing from Antarctica are exempt.

Professor Nick Wilson from the Public Health department at the University of Otago says that's a good move, but he wants more done at our managed isolation hotels.

"Our MIQ facilities, as they're designed now, are nowhere near state of the art. Hotels were not built to be quarantine facilities with shared spaces and shared ventilation," he says.

Shared spaces are areas like exercise yards and smokers corners, and Prof Wilson says they should be removed.

"We've got to look at all the other possible measures to reduce the risk. The risk is just still way too high."

Professor Michael Baker agrees.

"We obviously should look at ways of minimising that behaviour while they're going through the MIQ system and things like nicotine replacement therapy could be mandated," he says.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says smokers are now being more tightly controlled.

"Where we see a high prevalence of smokers, we are trying to concentrate them into the facilities that have balconies," he says.

But Prof Baker says he wants to hear less Government messaging about what the 'team of five million' should do. With the UK recording over 37,000 new cases on Monday, he wants to hear more about how we're stopping that threat from arriving here.

"I think we should focus much more on the 300 people, roughly, every day getting on flights from countries where the pandemic is out of control," he says.

"What's going to save New Zealand now is thinking very hard about that red zone."

Prof Baker says pre-departure quarantine in hot spots like the UK and US would reduce the risk of mingling before people get on flights. And if we are not prepared to do that - he has another recommendation. 

"I think we need to turn that tap down, even potentially suspend travel from those countries."

The epidemiologists say their suggestions may sound harsh, but New South Wales, Queensland, and Western Australia have already put a cap on new arrivals. However, Hipkins told Newshub the voucher system for New Zealand’s managed isolation hotels already acts as an effective cap on overseas arrivals.