Jacinda Ardern, Chris Hipkins push back on National's call for full managed isolation and quarantine review

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins are pushing back on National's call for a full managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) review after three returnees caught the virus during their stay at a facility. 

Over the weekend the Government confirmed that a Northland woman had tested positive after completing 14 days at Auckland's Pullman Hotel MIQ facility. On Wednesday, two family members who stayed at the same facility also tested positive. 

It led Australia to close its border to New Zealand for 72 hours - now extended for another 72 hours - out of an "abundance of caution" after it was discovered the woman had contracted the South African COVID-19 variant in the community. The source of the variant is now in quarantine. 

The two latest cases have now been transferred to a quarantine facility in Auckland, separate from the Pullman. A third family member, who has returned negative COVID-19 tests, is currently isolating at home.

The virus scare has prompted National's COVID-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop to call for a full review of all MIQ facilities since there "is still evidence of cohort mingling... where recent arrivals are able to mix and mingle with people coming towards the end of their stay". 

Bishop says that doesn't make sense. 

"National has been concerned for months about the laxity of MIQ and the potential for people to catch COVID-19 there. Stories coming out of these facilities have cast doubt on whether the right protocols are in place, and whether they are being followed."

Ardern told reporters on Thursday that the Government already regularly reviews MIQ facilities to reduce the risk of transmissions as much as possible. 

"We already undertake regular infection control audits, so we've been doing that on a bi-monthly basis already. When we have an incident, we go into that specific facility and look at their operation. We're already underway with that," she said. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Getty

Hipkins had a similar response at the 1pm COVID-19 update in Wellington. 

"We review those regularly. We do have regular infection prevention control audits which happen in all of these facilities. We release information about those so we'll look at what more we need to put out there about that. That's exactly why we're not accepting new guests at the Pullman so that that can be looked at very closely."

Ardern said the Government has already tightened the border, with mandatory pre-departure testing required of every arrival to New Zealand except for those travelling from Australia, Antarctica and most Pacific Islands. 

Arrivals from those countries must also be tested on day one of their stay in MIQ, along with the regular day three and day 12 tests. Guests are now required to stay in their rooms after their day 12 tests to avoid potentially spreading the virus or picking it up.

"In the meantime, we want to get to the bottom of what has happened in this particular facility, because it's clear from the link to these cases that something has happened, an event of some description, and so in the meantime we're not putting new people into the Pullman while we work through and identify - as we always do - what's happened that's caused this to occur," Ardern said. 

"One of the things we've talked to our health officials about is what we expect of people once they've had their final test while they're still in the facility to again minimise the risk. Do we need to minimise people's movements or transactions once they've had that final test? We have asked for some advice and thought around that."

National's COVID-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop.
National's COVID-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

Hipkins said CCTV showed that all three of the cases had been out of their rooms at different times and an investigation continues into where and how they may have picked up the virus. 

Quarantine staff are among the most tested people in the country and perform a critical role in keeping COVID-19 out of New Zealand communities.

Border workers are also tested regularly, with mandatory testing coming into force on August 29 last year. The Government introduced new measures in November for border staff, including increasing the frequency for some of those at higher risk.

The rules included weekly testing of ship pilots and some other port workers, fortnightly testing for port workers not already covered, and fortnightly testing for airport workers not already covered who interact with international arrivals or transiting passengers. 

How many outbreaks in New Zealand?

The first outbreak of COVID-19 in New Zealand led to the March-April alert level 4 lockdown in 2020. The country finally shifted to alert level 1 on June 8. 

On August 11, an outbreak occurred in Auckland and the source remains unknown. It came after more than 100 days of no detected community transmission. Auckland finally shifted from alert level 3 to level 1 on October 7 and has remained at that level ever since. 

There have been other community outbreaks since then, such as the small Auckland cluster in October, but health officials were able to trace it to a port worker who was infected via a ship that arrived from Australia. 

The most recent community case in November - before the outbreak this week - was a retail worker in Auckland whose infection was traced to a Defence Force worker who became infected at the Jet Park quarantine facility.