COVID-19: Concerns in the community over management of home isolation, police say they have 'limited powers' to enforce compliance

The mother of a vulnerable child in Auckland is concerned about the management of home isolation, with a COVID-positive neighbour allegedly leaving their home and putting the community at risk.

Roughly 700 people with COVID-19 are currently isolating at home. The new model is considered a more sustainable approach to managing COVID-positive patients as it avoids overfilling managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities. With MIQ still required for new arrivals, a shortage of rooms has created a major backlog of overseas Kiwis who are desperate to return home, but are unable to guarantee a space. 

Auckland mother Tiff McLeod has a newborn baby and a daughter with a chronic health condition, who is currently recovering from a major surgery that resulted in a collapsed lung. She has serious concerns about how home isolation is managed, claiming her COVID-positive neighbour has breached the rules on multiple occasions. She is worried the neighbours are putting her family at risk.

Speaking to The AM Show on Thursday, McLeod said her neighbours have been "out and about" in recent days, despite the mother testing positive for COVID-19. She says the family don't seem to understand that as household contacts of their mother, they should also be isolating inside their home. Instead, McLeod says she sees the family often sitting out on the deck together or walking in the street. 

With Auckland enduring its eleventh week of lockdown, McLeod had been letting her five-year-old boy interact with the neighbours' children through the fence to help combat some of the day-to-day boredom. 

"They had climbed over our fence a couple of times to play on our swing, and we sent them back," she said. 

However, that was before she realised their mother was ill.

"Two days ago, the dad decided to tell our little boy about the mum isolating there because she has a positive test for COVID, and the whole family are meant to be [isolating]."

She says they live on a quiet street with many elderly residents - some of whom had been interacting with the family just the other day.

"[The family] have been out and about on the streets," she claimed. "We've seen them on the deck. They are mingling… Other neighbours on the other side, who are elderly, were like, 'we were talking and interacting with them just yesterday'. 

"It's not an ideal situation to have people isolating at home who are not able to or willing to abide by the rules."

McLeod says she is worried that authorities are not sufficiently monitoring those who have been trusted to isolate at home. After realising her neighbours were not following the rules of home isolation, McLead notified the police, who promptly arrived at the address to speak with the family. She says her neighbours were "quite aggressive" with the officer, who told McLeod there was not much more they could do.

"The officer said they're stuck. There are so many people isolating at home, they don't know who - they can only do so much once they're made aware of it. Otherwise they don't know who is where," she said.

McLeod wonders whether health authorities should be more forthcoming with communities about which households are currently isolating and whether neighbourhoods have positive cases among them.

"You can't keep people imprisoned in their homes, but there must be some way of either letting people know there's a COVID-positive case - not necessarily where, but in their street so they can be more vigilant and not stop to have a chat on their walk," she suggested. "Or making sure those who need to be isolated are supported enough that they can remain isolated."

But Police Association President Chris Cahill says home isolation is largely out of officers' control. The police are not given any information regarding COVID-positive people who are isolating in the community, he says.

"The response relies on the majority of New Zealanders doing the right thing," he told The AM Show.

"From a police perspective, this is actually the Ministry of Health [who] is responsible. Police no longer get told who has COVID or where they are, the police aren't even given that information from Health, so they're running blind - turning up at addresses and dealing with people with no idea if they have COVID."

He says unless officers are called on by health authorities for assistance, they have "very limited powers". 

"The reality is the police don't even have that information anymore, Health don't even pass it on. They can only go and try to ask people who are self-isolating to cooperate… we very much rely on the cooperation of those people now." 

Ashley Bloomfield.
Ashley Bloomfield. Photo credit: The AM Show

Speaking to The AM Show following McLeod and Cahill's interviews, the Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, said every case of COVID-19 undergoes a "thorough assessment" with a public health staffer to assess their circumstances and what support they might need to isolate at home safely.

"Some are unable to [isolate at home]… those people are able to be taken into a quarantine facility. Sometimes situations arise where there are challenges around compliance, that is looked into and if necessary, an offer is made for someone to move into a quarantine facility," he said.

Regarding McLeod's situation, Bloomfield said public health staff would have been in contact with the family and health officials would rely on the advice of their team as to whether intervention was needed. The assessment would have evaluated the person's living situation as well as any "health or social needs" that need to be supported, he said.

"There would have been an initial assessment, a very thorough interview, when they tested positive."