Coronavirus: Ardern defends returning Kiwis, Govt unsure whether it can legally charge them for isolation stay

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says keeping returning Kiwis in isolation and quarantine is an "expensive exercise", but it's not clear if the Government can legally ask them to share in the costs.

Anyone entering the country is required to spend at least 14 days in managed isolation if they're symptom-free, or in quarantine, before their usual freedoms are restored. The Ministry of Health's most recent data, from June 23, shows there are more than 4000 people currently living in hotels and other facilities, separated from the public. 

The Government has spent more than $80 million running the 22 isolation and quarantine facilities so far, leading to calls for returning Kiwis to pay at least a part of that. Queensland from July 1 will charge individuals AU$2800 for the two-week stay, families AU$4600. 

Minister in charge Megan Woods told Newshub Nation at the weekend they're considering something similar.

"What we have to make sure is that we're getting that fine balance of fairness between the inalienable right of New Zealanders to come home - and I think we all want to know we will always have that right - against the fairness to the taxpayer.

"We all need to remember that this money we're spending - and it is a lot of money - is our very strong line of defence that is protecting the position that we got through our sacrifice."

Ardern told The AM Show on Monday there are a "number of things that we have to take into account, keeping in mind that New Zealanders legally have the right to come home".

"This is the only place many people can legally reside, so if you put up a wall and say 'you cannot come home' or place up barriers to coming home, that does have legal implications for us. It's not a simple thing to work through." 

Foreign Minister Winston Peters told Kiwis living overseas to come home as early as March 18. The borders to foreigners were closed the next day. 

International law says citizens of any country can't be denied the right to return there, and the Taxpayers' Union last week said it would be "probably unconstitutional" to charge people for a Government-mandated stay in a hotel. 

Ardern defended Kiwis leaving it this late to come home, saying many would only have decided to return after losing their jobs overseas, in places where they might not have support systems. Others would be coming back now for family reasons that might not have existed in March. 

She said any charge on returning Kiwis would not be intended as a deterrent.

"The charge is just acknowledging there are costs. Of course we are covering the cost of people's food, for instance, for these two weeks... Some would argue that's because they'd usually opt for a cheaper option of grocery stores, but they can't go out.

"There are a range of things that need to be weighed up and balanced here - that's why we've said we'll look at it. It's an expensive exercise, but it's the cost of keeping New Zealand safe."

Jacinda Ardern
Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: The AM Show

Borders secure despite testing blunders 

There hasn't been a single case of community transmission reported in weeks, despite a number of Kiwis being let out of isolation without a test. The requirement for tests on day three and 12 were always in place, but weren't being followed, it emerged recently. 

"The processes were poorly developed, many of them were not followed - particularly around the testing regime - and particularly that the record-keeping was completely disjointed," National Party health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse told Newshub.

"They know who's coming in, they know how long they're going to stay and they know the requirements for isolation and testing during that period. It shouldn't have been as difficult as they're making it out." 

Dr Woods on Sunday announced a review of the border controls found the system "is not broken but does need additional resourcing to respond to the increasing demands placed upon it". 

"There is no playbook for this kind of pandemic. We're one of only a handful of countries in the world to require managed isolation at the border with compulsory testing, making our existing system one of the strictest globally."

Ardern played down the lack of testing, saying the 14 days in isolation is far more important. 

"The most important thing, if you ask epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists, the most important thing - because of the fact you can sometimes get false negatives - will always be quarantine. That's the reason we don't have people come in, test them, and then let them go."

Infectious diseases specialist David Murdoch of the University of Otago backed up Ardern's claims.

"The key thing is that the primary intervention is the quarantine process. The testing of those that are in quarantine is an extra measure, giving extra security," he told Newshub.

He said the changes announced by Dr Woods on Sunday appeared to be "fairly comprehensive".

"I think the challenge is going to be just making sure things are working as they should." 

Ardern said Ministry of Health officials aren't concerned about the 2100 or so who left isolation without a test. More than half have been tested so far, with no positive results.

"The idea they are causing issues in our community... the chances of that are very, very low. We've had 80,000 tests in our community since then and no issues. 

"One thing to keep in mind we are actually the only country in the world mandating testing of everyone before leaving quarantine. No one else is doing that. Most countries rely on the 14 days, because that's the most important."

People who refuse a test before their 14 days are up are required to stay an extra 14 days, to be doubly sure they're no longer infectious.

Why New Zealand's getting new cases now 

After a few weeks without any new cases at all, there has been a steady trickle of new infections being detected at the border - Sunday's figure of four was the highest since early May. 

Ardern said that was a result of the surging numbers of infections being reported overseas - while the threat of COVID-19 might appear to be in the rear-view mirror for Kiwis, the global situation is getting worse by the day. About 190,000 new cases are being confirmed every day now - when Peters made the call for Kiwis to come home, there had been about that many confirmed cases in total. 

"In the last 13 days, we've had 80,000 tests - that represents 20 percent of the testing we've done this entire time," said Ardern. "All of our cases have been at the border - so managed, in facilities, in isolation - managed. We do not have cases in our community. I want to really highlight that, because unfortunately some of the reporting has meant people haven't been left with that impression. 

"Those 80,000 tests have actually demonstrated that we are catching the virus at the border as we intended through our quarantine system."