Jacinda Ardern not ruling out quarantining COVID-19 cases if community transmission returns

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is not ruling out quarantining anyone with COVID-19 in managed isolation facilities if community transmission returns in New Zealand. 

The Government has dumped a heap of background information related to COVID-19, and a Cabinet paper review of alert level 3 shows that putting anyone with the coronavirus into a managed isolation facility was considered. 

Ardern on Friday confirmed the concept is still under consideration, but that it's essentially been put on ice because there is no evidence of community transmission across the country. 

"That has been a discussion that we've actually had together and we still haven't ruled out," she told reporters in Queenstown. "Keeping in mind, that advice came at a time when since then we actually haven't had any COVID cases in the community.

"It still remains very much an option that if we have COVID cases we could use those facilities for that purpose too. We haven't ruled that option out but we looked at that advice at a time when since then we haven't had substantive cases in our community to put into facilities."

Health Minister David Clark told Newshub advice didn't favour isolating every COVID-19 case.

"Subsequent advice did not favour this approach."

He said it was decided that it was better to support people with COVID-19 who did not require hospital-level care to remain in self-isolation in the community, with wraparound health and welfare support.

"The results of that approach speak for themselves," he said. 

Quarantine is currently only required for arrivals to New Zealand. The Government has more than 4000 people in managed isolation where returnees must spend 14 days before being released into the public. 

Cabinet advice from April 9 said the isolation facilities were set up, all arrivals on a given day would be "housed in a single facility to help manage cross contamination". 

The Health Minister said as demand has grown, and also to efficiently use hotel accommodation, arrivals to New Zealand on a single day have been managed in more than one facility.

"Infection prevention and control processes and security are in place to minimise the chances of mingling between cohorts of guests."

The minister in charge of managed isolation, Megan Woods, said the Government is weighing up options to share the costs of it with returnees. 

Dr Woods revealed earlier this week that about $81 million will have been spent on running the facilities by June 30, with $298 million appropriated for the rest of 2020. 

The Prime Minister was asked if she agreed with a suggestion in the documents that Kiwis who have been out of New Zealand for a long time should be charged for quarantine as opposed to Kiwis who are coming back from a holiday.

"We haven't considered advice as a Cabinet yet but obviously it does come at a significant expense to taxpayers to run our really robust quarantine system," Ardern said. 

"But there are a lot of factors to think about. Many Kiwis are returning to New Zealand under circumstances they can't control - but we'll give that all due consideration."

The documents also show that the Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield was wary to move down the alert levels. 

He recommended a "transition to level 2 which would not take place all at once but should delay the riskiest activities to ensure we were able to monitor the effects of the first set of changes".

But he also admitted that staying in lockdown too long could erode the public's trust.

"The longer we remain in level 3 the weaker public support is likely to become, especially if there is no obvious increase in cases."

Based on Dr Bloomfield's hesitance to move down the levels, Ardern was asked if the Government acted too soon to shift to alert level 1 on June 9. 

"No, and actually you'll find that there was, by and large, a real consensus between the Director-General and Cabinet. Often it was just around small elements of phasing," Ardern said. 

"Since we've moved to level 1, we've had some of the most significant rates of testing in the world per positive case and we still continue to catch all of our cases at the border."

There are currently 14 active cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand - all in managed isolation.

The latest case announced on Friday is a man in his 30s who arrived in New Zealand on June 21 from Kenya, via Doha and Brisbane, who has been staying at the Novotel Ellerslie in Auckland. 

There are currently no known cases in the community.