Coronavirus: Experts call for arrivals infected with UK strain to do MIQ outside of Auckland

Medical experts are calling for big changes to our border protections against COVID-19, including housing people infected with the more infectious UK strain outside of Auckland. 

An increasing number of people are testing positive at the border - a sign the virus is more widespread overseas than it used to be, despite efforts to rein it in. 

In September, statistics from the Ministry of Health and Customs showed about 0.8 percent of people crossing the border into New Zealand would go on to test positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus - so far in January it's been 1.3 percent. 

A new strain of COVID-19 known as B.1.1.7 has ravaged the UK in recent months, and there's another in South Africa called 501Y.V2 - both are more infectious than the original which swept the world last year.

"Rather than one person typically infecting two others on average, it now might be more likely that the average person would infect three others," Nick Wilson, professor of public health at the University of Otago, told Newshub.

"It may explain the increased spread that's occurring in places like the UK and the US. This is a concern, and it really means for New Zealand that we're seeing more infected people returning to the country." 

Experts say the new strains are so infectious, it's probable a level 4 lockdown would be required to stop it if there was a breach. When community transmission of the virus was detected in Auckland in August, the entire region was put into an immediate level 3 lockdown - it was successful, but would have cost the economy hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars (less than what it would have cost if the outbreak hadn't been contained, but still avoidable). 

Nick Wilson.
Nick Wilson. Photo credit: RNZ

Dr Wilson says people arriving from countries with outbreaks of the new strain should perhaps do their managed isolation in less populated areas, so if there is a breach the risk of an outbreak is lessened.

"We need to seriously rethink how our facilities are organised in terms of the high-risk people - maybe going to facilities outside of Auckland, and reserving the hotels in Auckland for people from low-risk countries, say from Australia."

Changes in the hotels should also be looked at, Dr Wilson says, including perhaps making people spend the first week of their stay in true isolation - no visiting shared spaces - and fast-tracking vaccines to MIQ workers, ahead of the planned April rollout. 

Another option is banning travel altogether from places like South Africa, the UK and the US - they might be some of our closest cultural and economic partners, but the risk of losing our COVID-free status is just too great says Des Gorman, a professor of medicine at the University of Auckland. 

"The problem we face now with more infectious strains in the UK, US and South Africa, the risk of transmission becomes higher and the consequence of border breaches becomes greater. We're probably in a position where I think we have to simply stop all travel from the UK, US and South Africa until we revisit how we are managing the border."

Des Gorman.
Des Gorman. Photo credit: The AM Show

He estimates there have been about 80 breaches of the MIQ system to date, and it's been a matter of luck we haven't had a wide outbreak. 

"The Government needs to take some immediate measures - closing the border to countries which have mutant strains... we put a travel ban on China earlier on so we can do it and should do it."

The experts' calls have been echoed by National Party leader Judith Collins, who on Monday said it was worth considering a ban on travel from "countries where this new variant is circulating very vigorously".