Coronavirus: Emails show NZ Government was in the dark over Russian mariners who tested positive for COVID-19

Emails obtained by Newshub show Government officials were in the dark about what protocols Russian fishermen had followed prior to their arrival in New Zealand, where 32 then tested positive for COVID-19.

Neither the Ministry of Health, managed isolation nor Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) officials had seen the first group's pre-departure test results, they didn't know when the men were tested or anything about their isolation before they landed in Christchurch.

At the time, the country was assured great care had been taken to get them here.

"There was some very rigorous planning around this, including the requirement for the self-isolation, before they departed, the pre-departure testing," Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said on October 21 last year.

They'd come from a country where COVID-19 was raging; Russia at that stage was seeing about 20,000 new coronavirus cases emerge every day.

But MPI said the Russian and Ukrainian crews were essential workers, needed in the country to keep the boats catching fish. Four months on, we are getting a better picture of the information officials really had at the time.

On the same day that Dr Bloomfield was hailing health officials' rigorous planning and reducing any risk, emails were being sent saying something very different.

Managed isolation officials emailed Sealord's representatives, Ocean Law, wanting to see copies of the men's pre-departure test results and get other information.

They asked:

  • "did they get their results before they got on the plane or were they still pending as they left";
  • "what was the direction for isolation in Moscow and timelines";
  • "what window were they tested"; and
  • "this is not a witch hunt. Leadership just need to understand what occurred."

Epidemiologist and Otago University Associate Professor Nick Wilson says officials were missing critical, basic information - they still hadn't seen the test results.

"These are all pretty serious mistakes that need a really thorough investigation to see what went wrong," he said.

On Wednesday, Dr Bloomfield said the process had improved and said in hindsight, more questions could have been asked before the Russians arrived.

"I would say [information flow] has [now improved], and we were able to get that information very quickly once they did arrive," he said.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said this was an example of the system learning, admitting there were some issues with the first cohort of Russian mariners.

Those early issues are seen as a major issues by Prof Wilson.

"It should have been a matter of not trusting anyone but to validate things at a very high level given the risks involved," he said.

The emails show it was only on the day that 18 of the crew tested positive in managed isolation that officials started asking questions about the pre-departure tests in Russia.

They wanted to see the results, which were quickly gathered together by Sealord's representatives and presented to our officials.

Sealord says it didn't hand over the results before they arrived as pre-departure tests were not mandatory, and the Government didn't ask for them. 

"If the Government is going to continue to bring large groups, we need much better processes," Prof Wilson.

Those processes have now been changed, according to the head of managed isolation.

A policy change means as the second group of fisherman landed a month ago, officials did have their test results and self-isolation details beforehand.