Jacinda Ardern throws doubt on National's purpose-built COVID-19 quarantine facility idea

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern questions if there is "any value-add" in National's proposal to construct purpose-built COVID-19 quarantine facilities outside of Auckland. 

National's suggestion came after a Northland woman caught COVID-19 in January after completing two weeks of managed isolation (MIQ) at the Pullman Hotel facility in Auckland, sparking an investigation that led to changes to its operating model. 

"The recent Pullman Hotel cases showed just how much risk Auckland is at of another community outbreak because of the ingrained problems with MIQ," said National's COVID-19 response spokesperson Chris Bishop. 

"New Zealand can't afford to keep yo-yoing in and out of lockdown and Auckland's economy can't afford to keep bleeding more than $30 million per day."

But with the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine already being rolled out to border workers, and the general public set to receive jabs starting from mid-year, Ardern suggested it might be too late in the pandemic to consider purpose-built MIQ facilities. 

"We anticipate our vaccine programme will take up to a full year - most countries are banking on that as well. But in that time, we may well see or feel extra confident in the ability of a vaccine to stop transmission, and that may well change up what's required at the border," Ardern said on Monday. 

"In the meantime, the idea of being able to - within those timeframes - build purpose-built facilities that can hold up to 6000 people, is a significant ask. I question whether there's any value-add.

"Ultimately, many of the issues we face have not been about facilities but about the fact that we have humans within them, and from time-to-time you may well touch the same button or be in contact with the same rubbish bin, and that has been a path of transmission.

"So, not always has the facility been the problem but the virus within it."

The Pullman Hotel MIQ facility was temporarily closed after a woman caught COVID-19 after spending two weeks in managed isolation.
The Pullman Hotel MIQ facility was temporarily closed after a woman caught COVID-19 after spending two weeks in managed isolation. Photo credit: Getty

Bishop wants the Government to consider copying the Australian state of Victoria, which is planning a cabin-style hub outside Melbourne's CBD to replace its MIQ hotels, following a recent outbreak that led to a lockdown. 

The facility would likely be a village of single-storey pre-fabricated structures with separate ventilation systems for each room. Returnees would share the facility but not the same roof. 

Following the investigation into the Pullman by health officials, changes were made to the way the corridor ventilation system is used - it must now operate 24 hours a day, as opposed to two hours a day at the time the Northland woman was staying there. 

Returnees are now limited in the times they are permitted to leave their rooms to set schedules. The upgrade of the Pullman's CCTV system, which is now complete, will help monitor compliance with these movement restrictions.

Air filtration systems are also being installed in the lifts. In the meantime, the use of lifts in the facility is reduced to mitigate the risk of transmission within them. 

Bishops says having ample fresh air - like the facilities planned in Victoria would have - reduces the risk of airborne transmission among returnees, while the isolated location makes it harder for the virus to find its way into heavily-populated urban areas where it can spread faster. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has thrown doubt on National MP Chris Bishop's purpose-built MIQ facility idea.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has thrown doubt on National MP Chris Bishop's purpose-built MIQ facility idea. Photo credit: Newshub

"A purpose-built facility may prove expensive but its cost will be dwarfed by the economic hit of putting Auckland into more lockdowns," he said. 

"If done right, the new Auckland quarantine facility could be converted into much-needed housing once it has served its initial purpose. The demand for this facility will not expire."

National's deputy leader Shane Reti told Magic Talk on Monday National hadn't done any cost estimates for purpose-built facilities. But he said it would outweigh the cost of more lockdowns.

"The consequence of a lockdown - roughly $30 million a week in Auckland - puts all this in context. It's that uncertain future and how much longer we're going to get border incursions and temporary lockdowns. That's the uncertainty that we want to risk-mitigate."

The head of MIQ, Brigadier Jim Bliss, said last week that while multiple factors contributed to the cases around the Pullman, MIQ has "always been about continuous improvement". 

"We are a learning organisation and what we have learned at the Pullman has resulted in us refining processes across all 32 facilities - all with the aim of protecting returnees, staff and all New Zealanders."