COVID-19: Dr Ashley Bloomfield justifies Ministry of Health's proposal to block returning Kiwis

The Ministry of Health has revealed that on the day before lockdown began, it recommended blocking Kiwis returning to New Zealand until sufficient quarantine measures had been put in place.  

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield justified the Ministry of Health (MoH)'s recommendation on Wednesday after Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters made the revelation in a speech just an hour prior. 

Dr Bloomfield said as the number of COVID-19 cases began to increase in New Zealand, the MoH felt that until a "really secure process" for border controls was in place around isolation or quarantine, the Government should "temporarily close the border". 

"Cabinet balanced our advice with all the advice and with that came the instruction and the expectation that we would get that process in place very promptly."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the Government "simply would not tolerate New Zealanders not having the option to return to the safety of New Zealand", but she said it was "totally understandable" for the MoH to take that position. 

"Of course, the Ministry of Health wasn't required to weigh up our obligations through law... we did have to weigh that up. The way that we could deal with both obligations to set up the kind of quarantine we have now at the border."

Dr Bloomfield said he was not disappointed Cabinet decided against the advice. 

"Not only was the decision to go into lockdown made at the right time, but the additional measures we've been able to put in place to manage the border and prevent cases coming in during that lockdown period has paid off.

"That's why now we are seeing that any new cases from across the border are in fact already in quarantine and our overall low numbers reflect the fact that the overall approach was successful."

The Prime Minister said it would have been "extraordinary" for the Government to make a decision to strand New Zealanders and give them no ability to come home. 

"It could have meant that they were stuck illegally in other places and it could have meant they were stuck unsafely in other places - and we just couldn't entertain that. Equally, we needed to keep New Zealanders safe when they did return."

Dr Bloomfield said the advice was based on the MoH's "keep it out, stamp it out" approach. 

"It was clear at that time that most of our new cases were still coming in across the border, so we wanted Cabinet to understand from a public heath perspective, if we were to mitigate that risk of cases coming in across the border, ideally, we would close the border for a period."

Ardern said that approach is "not unusual" because ministries focus on their "own obligations" and it "wouldn't have been normal" for a public health response to consider things that Cabinet would. 

Peters praised the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) for advising the Government against blocking Kiwis returning to New Zealand. 

"Indeed, the Ministry of Health recommended a total shutdown of the border, including to returning New Zealanders. From its health perspective this was understandable and appropriate advice," he said. 

"But the Coalition Cabinet rejected that advice because it was and is inconceivable that we will ever turn our backs on our own. So, on March 17, New Zealanders were urged to come home while commercial options remained available."

He said the idea was "championed by others and was a highly respected view", but that it was MFAT officials who provided "insight" to health officials about how keeping the border open could be achieved safely. 

When asked how Kiwis would have responded to not being allowed back into the country, Peters said: "They had a right to think that the country had forsaken them."

In the last three months, MFAT has provided consular advice to 4500 New Zealanders, compared 700 in the same period last year. 

As of 24 April, MFAT had provided temporary financial assistance in the form of COVID-19 related consular advances - expected to be paid back - to 190 Kiwis overseas totalling $1,008,136.