Government enforces 24-hour police presence at COVID-19 managed isolation facilities

The Government is enforcing a 24-hour police presence at all managed isolation facilities in New Zealand after two people managed to escape in the space of one week. 

But the Government stopped short of banning smoking areas at the facilities despite the latest absconder using a smoking area at the Stamford Plaza managed isolation in Auckland facility to get out. 

Megan Woods, the minister in charge of managed isolation facilities, said over the last 24 hours the Government has sought to further tighten the security arrangements in place to prevent any further outbreaks. 

"Anyone who chooses to break out of these facilities is committing a reckless act of selfishness and we will come down on them with the full weight of the law," she told reporters on Thursday. 

"They are putting New Zealanders at risk and undermining our efforts to keep COVID out of the community. Frankly, they don't deserve to join the team of 5 million."

Dr Woods said the facilities are not prisons but they do have 24/7 security and fences to keep returning New Zealanders inside. She said the vast bulk of returnees comply with the rules and cause no problems. 

"But the facilities are a snapshot of society and there will inevitably be the odd problem. We must ensure our security arrangements anticipate the type of behaviour we are seeing from the worst of our returnees."

Therefore, effective immediately, Dr Woods said there will be a permanent police presence at every managed isolation and quarantine facility in New Zealand 24 hours a day. 

But Air Commodore Darryn Webb, head of managed isolation and quarantine, said the Government has decided against banning smoking areas despite a 32-year-old man escaping through one on Tuesday night and going to a supermarket.

"There is strong health advice that effectively forcing someone to quit smoking while already in a heightened state of stress is likely to lead to an increase in that stress and aggressive behaviour," Webb told reporters.

"We recognise that for a lot of people in these facilities their return to New Zealand represents a dramatic time in their lives and our job is to make sure that period of managed isolation is as stress-free as possible."

He said banning smoking would not be appropriate at this stage, but all smoking areas will be monitored 24 hours a day, and if they cannot be monitored they will be closed.

Webb said the escapee was seen at the smoking area at 6:51pm and escaped via a fence section being replaced. He walked to Countdown on Victoria St West and spent 20 minutes there, before taking a phone call, and arriving back at the hotel as 7:58pm.

"We'll never be able to entirely remove the risk of someone making a choice to break the law. This is true in managed isolation just as it is in general society. But our job is to make sure the law is backed up by as many preventative measures as practical."

He said the facilities currently have contracted guards on site 24/7 but they don't have powers to detain someone who escapes.

"The police have agreed to have a uniformed officer on-site at each isolation facility 24/7. "There will be a lead security position at each facility. This person will be a senior security professional responsible for overseeing the security on-site."

Webb said there are currently 5648 people with a capacity of 6380. He said 27,723 Kiwis have  gone through the facilities since March 26. Over next week, 2418 arrivals are projected with 2762 departures, making a 344 net reduction.

The Ministry of Health reported three new cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand on Thursday all in managed isolation facilities, bringing the total number of active cases to 24.