There is "no evidence" to suggest people are using New Zealand's managed isolation system as a "back door" for further travel, says COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.
It follows revelations that at least a dozen returnees departed New Zealand immediately after completing their minimum 14-day period in a managed isolation facility (MIQ).
In the past week, three people have tested positive for COVID-19 after being released from the Pullman Hotel, a facility in Auckland. Genomic sequencing indicates the two more recent cases are linked to the first, who tested positive last weekend. As health officials continue to investigate how the three returnees contracted the virus, Australian authorities revealed that a dozen departees from the Pullman Hotel had arrived in Sydney. It's understood three travelled on to Hong Kong, as reported by Stuff.
Their brief visits - with a price tag of $3,100 for one adult - came as thousands of Kiwis overseas faced a long wait to secure a spot in MIQ. The country has tightened its border management in response to the detection of two mutated variants of the virus. First discovered in the UK and South Africa, the variants are understood to be more transmissible than the strain that initially wreaked havoc worldwide as the pandemic took hold early last year.
National's health spokesperson Chris Bishop told Stuff he was surprised that at least a dozen people had left the country immediately after completing their managed isolation period.
"Within the bounds of respect for privacy, we do need more information about why this happened and how widespread it is," Bishop told the outlet. "I think people are bemused at people being cooped up for 14 days and then immediately leaving again."
Although the MIQ system does not keep records of returnees' movements after they are released from a facility, Minister Hipkins told Newshub health officials are aware of people leaving New Zealand immediately after serving their time.
"There is no evidence to suggest people are using New Zealand MIQ as a 'back door' for further travel," Hipkins told Newshub in a statement on Sunday.
"However we are aware of people leaving New Zealand following their stay in MIQ. While we do not know whether their motivations differ to those they have outlined to officials, there are reasons why people would leave New Zealand following a stay in a managed isolation facility."
He suggested that picking up children in a shared custody arrangement or personal emergencies - for example, an unexpected death of a loved one back in Australia while they are completing managed isolation in New Zealand - are possible reasons for a quick departure.
However, Hipkins noted that officials would have a "dim view" of anyone intending to isolate in New Zealand for the purpose of ongoing travel.
"We would take a dim view however, to anyone looking to isolate in New Zealand with the intention of ongoing travel," he said.
"Anyone who leaves New Zealand within three months of arriving is expected to pay for the cost of their stay in managed isolation."
He noted that the Government does not want to raise the cost of MIQ as officials believe it would negatively impact Kiwis hoping to return home amid the pandemic.
Last Sunday, it was announced that a Northland woman had tested positive for the virus after departing the hotel on January 15. Days later, it was confirmed that an adult and a child from the same family had also returned positive results after leaving the facility on the same day.
Before the revelation that the Northland woman had tested positive in the community, a one-way air bridge with Australia allowed Kiwis entry to most parts of Australia without needing to quarantine on arrival. Yet on Monday, the Australian government decided it would temporarily suspend the agreement in light of New Zealand's recent developments. It's understood that Australian authorities will announce on Sunday when quarantine-free travel can resume.
No new community cases were announced this Sunday, but one new imported case has been detected in managed isolation.