Coronavirus: Expert condemns transfer of COVID-positive UN worker from Fiji to NZ as 'dreadful decision'

A public health expert says transferring a United Nations (UN) worker with COVID-19 from Fiji to New Zealand is a "dreadful decision", putting the country "at unnecessary risk". 

But the UN says it has a duty of care to its employees. 

A mercy dash from Suva to Middlemore Hospital, to help save a UN worker who their colleague, UN Resident Coordinator for Fiji Sanaka Samarasinha, describes as "a wonderful person, very committed, dedicated staff member".

Newshub has decided not to identify the UN employee, but she's a senior official for Fiji's UN Development Programme (UNDP).

"I'm really grateful for everything that New Zealand has done and what the doctors are doing," Samarasinha told Newshub.

Fiji recorded 1057 new cases on Wednesday in just 24 hours, and 218 people have died. The transfer of the patient marks the first time the UN has evacuated anyone with COVID-19 in the Pacific.

Dr Collin Tukuitonga, Auckland University Associate Professor of Public Health, said it's a bad call.

"I think it's a dreadful decision for a number of reasons. One is it puts us at unnecessary risk," he said.

"We are, in a sense, playing with fire."

Former head of the UNDP, Helen Clark, told Newshub: "Many people worked together to make this MEDEVAC possible. I have total confidence in Middlemore Hospital and its first-class ICU.

"Counties Manukau and Middlemore have stepped up to respond to a UN request which will be hugely appreciated by the UN and the patient and her family."

The Ministry of Health says an "appropriate" infection prevention and isolation plan is in place - and while the initial request was declined due to capacity issues, officials have now determined there is room to have the patient at the hospital.

Dr Tukuitonga says it sets a dangerous precedent as many other vulnerable patients who have died weren't able to get treatment in New Zealand.

"Without a doubt there's diplomatic, political pressure being applied."

But the UN's Samarasinha says there has been no preferential treatment. 

"We did not bring to bear any kind of pressure."

He says the decision was based on clinical evaluations. Whatever the reason, there has been a sudden U-turn.