Investigation reveals major missteps by Ministry of Health regarding COVID-riddled foreign ship docked in NZ

A Newshub investigation into a COVID-riddled foreign ship that docked in New Zealand has revealed a series of major missteps by the Ministry of Health, which experts say could have led to an earlier Delta outbreak.

Australia warned New Zealand authorities that a pilot who'd previously been on the vessel had the Delta strain - but the Ministry decided there "was nothing to worry about". 

The container vessel Rio De La Plata was a known COVID-19 threat that sailed into Tauranga from Australia in early August - a month before the Auckland Delta outbreak. 

On August 3, officials in Canberra warned of a problem by emailing Maritime New Zealand to say a pilot who'd been on the vessel had tested positive for the Delta variant.

But within three hours of receiving that alert, the Ministry of Health decided there was "no risk to New Zealand". 

Wayne Butson, the general secretary of the Rail and Maritime Transport Union, says "the Government have always said they've been taking a cautious approach to COVID and to find the Ministry reacting in this way during this particular ship visit kind of beggars belief really".

What happened is laid out in Official Information Act documents from Toi Te Ora Public Health and Maritime New Zealand obtained by Newshub. 

After speaking to a shipping agent in Tauranga, the Australia Maritime Authority, and the incident controller in Cairns, the Ministry's COVID incident response manager emailed police and other health officials to say: "This has quickly turned into nothing to worry about."

Given the pilot was last on the vessel 10 days ago, was vaccinated, and only recently got symptoms, it was concluded "there is no chance he was infectious while on the ship".

Maritime New Zealand swiftly notified its people in an email to: "Stand down. There is no public health risk."

The Royal NZ College of GPs medical director Dr Brian Betty told Newshub this could have resulted in a breach of COVID-19 at the border.

"So I would hope the Government and the Ministry is looking very closely at what's happened."

Dr Betty said when making decisions about the risks of COVID-19 it’s critical there's no confusion. 

"It's so, so important when we are protecting the borders that we have clear lines of communication, clear lines of authority and responsibility," he said.

Professor Des Gorman, an Auckland University professor of medicine, agreed.

"This is probably the biggest exercise in good luck throughout the whole COVID-19 pandemic. We could have had the current outbreak a month earlier at a time when our vaccination rates were even lower still, and in an area which is far harder to mark off than Auckland. This could have been a disaster for us."

On August 4, at 10:30am a Maritime New Zealand officer "casually mentions" to a Tauranga health protection officer something about "issues with the Rio De La Plata", but unloading of the vessel commenced anyway. 

By 8:30pm, a Customs officer raises concerns, which are passed on to Toi Te Ora's duty medical officer of health. 

An hour later at 9:35pm unloading is ordered to stop. 

At 10:12pm, plans are made to swab all crew the next day. 

However, on August 5 at 8:14am, the Ministry intervened, telling Toi Te Ora public health on the phone it's done a risk assessment and there are "no concerns". 

But that assessment was never officially sent to public health and despite never seeing it, 12 minutes later at 8:26am, public health allowed unloading of the vessel at the Port of Tauranga to restart. 

Butson told Newshub "To have these sorts of things come out, does sadly undermine confidence".

Prof Gorman said the handling of the situation was "amateurism".

"The time is gone for this degree of amateurism. We need a professional governance body, we need a professional management body."

It also appeared the Ministry was poorly prepared when it came to PPE for key port workers. 

Emails show that on August 10, the Ministry advised that the PPE being worn by Port of Tauranga pilots was "inadequate" for Delta, saying it's in the process of "developing" new guidelines.

Butson said more than 18 months into the pandemic, the advice should have been clear. 

"It is just staggering," he told Newshub.

A day later, on August 11, 11 of the 21 crew on the Rio De La Plata tested positive for COVID-19 and 110 port workers were rushed in for testing. 

The Health Ministry told Newshub it's now changed the rules. 

"The Ministry accepts the importance of involving relevant agencies in completing its risk assessment and processes are now in place to address this," a spokesperson said. 

The Ministry confirmed the risk assessment was based on phone calls. It doesn't appear anything was ever formally written up. 

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins accepted mistakes were made. 

"The key thing has been to look into any instances where things have not gone as planned, review what happened, and make recommendations. That has happened here," he said.