COVID-19: Health Minister Chris Hipkins hits out at Australia for sending back 30 deportees amid pandemic

Health Minister Chris Hipkins has hit out at Australia over its plan to send back around 30 deportees during the COVID-19 pandemic - but the two governments are working together to make sure it's well-managed. 

Hipkins said New Zealand is "opposed to the way Australia is handling the deportation issue" and said the Government's position is that "these are Australia's problems, not New Zealand's problems" - but Australia is within its legal right to do so. 

"We are expecting around 30 to arrive as part of this cohort," he told reporters on Monday. "Whilst we're opposed to the deportation policy of the Australian Government, we are working closely with them to ensure that it is well-managed."

Kiwi criminals being sent back to New Zealand often with no connection to the country is an issue Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has repeatedly flagged with her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison. 

The pair held a press conference Sydney back in February, during which Ardern told Morrison in front of the press: "Send back Kiwis, genuine Kiwis - do not deport your people, and your problems."

But Morrison said Australia had no intention of changing its deportation policy. 

He said it is "not directed to any one country or any one nationality whatsoever" and described it as a warning that "if people that are not citizens commit crimes in Australia, then they have violated the terms of being in this country". 

Hipkins said the Government is obliged to receive the deportees. 

"Obviously, New Zealand is disappointed with the policy overall. It's something the Prime Minister has raised several times with the Prime Minister of Australia - we don't agree with the approach that we're taking," he said. 

"We don't have to like to know we have to work within the processes the Australian Government have put in place... But they are within their rights to do it."

Hipkins said Australia has given assurances they will not deport further people to New Zealand without first making sure all of the logistical arrangements are well-planned and there is capacity for it in managed isolation facilities. 

"There is a hotel that has been identified. It will be a separate hotel from where others are staying," Hipkins said. "It is an inner-city hotel. There will be enhanced security at it for the duration of the stay."

Hipkins said heightened security is needed because the deportees pose more risk. 

"People with a higher risk of potential offending because of their past backgrounds may well be within the cohort and so therefore we are just taking extra precautions to ensure that none of them are prematurely leaving the isolation facilities before they have had their clearance to do so."

The Government has been grappling with breaches in the security of its state-run managed isolation facilities, with a fourth person to date managing to escape from one over the weekend. 

"Part of what we have been doing is looking at the overall level of security around our managed isolation and quarantine facilities looking at where and how we need to strengthen those," Hipkins said.

"There are a number of measures already put in place around fencing, around security and having police on-site and so on, as part of our overall risk assessment.

"I don't have the details and backgrounds of each of the people in this particular cohort but I do want to reiterate we're taking a very precautionary approach here."

Hipkins said the deportees will be sent back on a single charter flight funded by Australia and there will be police on-site who will be actively involved in the process. 

Hipkins also addressed concern that the deportees could become victims of vigilante justice. 

"We all have to take a bit of a breath here. Where people break the rules, the process of law will kick in and people should leave these matters to the process of law and not take matters into their own hands."

The Ministry of Health reported no new cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand on Monday, meaning the number of active cases remains at 25 - all in managed isolation facilities.