Coronavirus: Bubble breaches, PPE misuses sees MIQ rules broken 190 times

Strict rules inside New Zealand's MIQ hotels are designed to stop the virus' spread, but guests, staff, and security are breaking those rules on average almost once a day.

Newshub can reveal there are dozens of bubble and PPE breaches every month, and health experts warn it is only a matter of time before one leads to another community outbreak. 

The Grand Millenium isolation hotel in Auckland was the scene of a secret rendezvous between a returnee and a worker in January, and a clear and dangerous breach of the rules. 

Des Gorman, a professor of medicine at the University of Auckland, says bubble breaches will lead to transmission of the virus, which leads to community outbreaks - "and we've seen that".

Despite the obvious risk, rules are being broken inside MIQ hotels almost daily.

Figures released to Newshub reveal that since July last year, bubbles have been breached 141 times and PPE has been unavailable, damaged, or not used 49 times.

Seventy-four percent of breaches are guests, but hotel workers (13 percent) and security (3 percent) are involved too.

"The level of breaches is excessively high, not just in absolute terms but in relative terms. If you compare us to Australia, we're having far more breaches per capita than they are," Gorman says. "You can confidently predict it will continue."

Breaches are recorded in two categories. First is low-risk, which could include a returnee failing to physically distance or leaving their room without a face mask. Or there's a high-risk breach, which could be a guest entering the room of another bubble or sharing food, drinks, or cigarettes with someone they shouldn't.   

Police say they have given 242 warnings, made one arrest, and brought one charge in relation to MIQ breaches since May 2020. 

New Zealand has recorded at least 10 border control failures, with nine linked to MIQ.

The most severe is thought to have sparked the August outbreak in Auckland resulting in a two-and-a-half week lockdown, 179 cases, and three deaths. 

There are also five instances of internal MIQ failures where COVID-19 has spread between returnees. 

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield says some change has been made because of recent transmission within the Pullman Hotel.

"One of the things we've done was basically greatly limited the amount of time people spend outside of their room. So there are very specific reasons, they need to be booked, they need to be escorted," he says.

But it's nowhere near enough, Gorman says.

"What we have is a system that has reached its plateau of performance and it's simply not getting any better."

And with COVID-19 mutating and surging overseas, the threat at our border has never been greater.