Coronavirus: Blame for isolation breaches lies with rule-breakers, not Govt - Health Minister Chris Hipkins

The Health Minister is fighting back claims the Government has lost control of COVID-19 isolation and quarantine facilities. 

Four people have escaped from managed isolation in the last week, smashing windows and cutting through fences in some cases.

All have been caught. Three have been charged so far, and face a fine or prison time if found guilty. The fourth is still under investigation. 

Health Minister Chris Hipkins told The AM Show on Friday it's not the Government's fault people keep breaking the rules.

"If someone came and broke into your house, we wouldn't turn to you and say, 'Actually, you should have had better locks - it's your fault.' These are people who have broken out - in some cases they've cut through fences, they've broken windows. They're breaking the law.

"That doesn't mean that the security wasn't adequate in the first place. These aren't maximum security prisons - they are hotels, and every effort is being made to keep them secure. These are people who are deliberately breaking the rules."

Security has been beefed up at hotels being used to house Kiwis returning from overseas, with a permanent police presence now at every facility and outdoor smoking areas under surveillance.

People have to stay at the facilities for at least 14 days and test negative for COVID-19 before they can leave. If they refuse to undergo a test, they have to stay for 28 days. 

"We've had about 30,000 people go through managed isolation so far, and we're talking about three or four people who have broken the rules," said Hipkins. 

"The response there has been swift - those people will feel the full weight of the law as a result of their actions. But I do want to be clear here - the vast majority of people going through these facilities are following the rules and doing the right thing."

If found guilty, absconders face a fine of up to $4000 or six months in prison. Despite saying they'll "feel the full weight of the law", Hipkins wouldn't be drawn on whether he'd push for rulebreakers to face the maximum penalties available. 

"It's ultimately a matter for the courts, but we've put these rules in place, they've broken the rules. Ultimately they've been charged, so what happens now is a matter for the criminal justice system."

Chris Hipkins.
Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: The AM Show

The Government is looking into other methods of keeping track of people in isolation, including ankle bracelets, and also at other electronic contact tracing methods which, if comprehensive, could remove the need for another economy-destroying lockdown.

"Rather than have lockdowns, if there are ways we can use electronic monitoring to do contact tracing and those sorts of things, we're looking at it."

Asked why isolation facilities weren't being set up outside of densely populated areas like central Auckland, minister in charge Megan Woods last week said it's because large hotels have the best facilities - such as separate bathrooms.

"Inevitably we're led to large hotels which tend to be located in the CBD - you can't use any kind of those institutional living arrangements where there might be shared bathrooms.

"Believe me, I would love to have these places well away from the CBD." 

It's been more than a month since the last person to have contracted COVID-19 via community transmission in New Zealand recovered. The last recorded case of local transmission was reported on April 29 - every case since then has been brought in from overseas and discovered in isolation or quarantine.