Is COVID-19 pre-departure testing up to scratch? Jacinda Ardern seeks 'quality assurance' in wake of India ban

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is seeking "quality assurance" of pre-departure testing after more than 60 passengers from India over two weeks tested positive for COVID-19. 

Ardern announced on Thursday a two-week ban on travellers from India entering New Zealand after 16 cases of COVID-19 were picked up in arrivals from India in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities. 

A further five cases of COVID-19 were picked up in MIQ arrivals from India on Friday. The only other positive case picked up was a traveller from the Philippines. 

"Over the last two weeks we've had over 60 passengers who have come in from India who have tested positive for COVID-19," Ardern said on Friday. "We have roughly 90 active cases at the moment, so as a proportion you can see it is relatively high."

The Government already requires a negative test from travellers in India and all other countries except Australia, Antarctica and the Pacific Islands. But officials have advised that travellers are likely picking up the virus on the way to the airport. 

Ardern said the two-week ban on travellers from India - from 4pm on Sunday, April 11, to Wednesday, April 28 - will give the Government time to see if there are ways to reduce the number of positive cases in MIQ. 

"For us it is about exploring additional options - making sure that pre-departure testing is as robust as it can be, that it's meeting the same level of expectation and quality assurance that we would have for instance in the New Zealand system, and looking if there are things that can be done around pre-departure or on arrival to reduce risk."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking to media in Auckland.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking to media in Auckland. Photo credit: Newshub

Ardern said there is no evidence to date of fraudulent pre-departure testing. But officials will explore whether the COVID-19 tests undertaken abroad live up to New Zealand standards. 

"One of the questions we have is that our PCR testing in New Zealand, we run a test a number of times in order for us to pick up if someone is either right at the end of infection or early on in infection," she said. 

"What we're not clear on is whether or not every country that's providing pre-departure testing is running their PCR tests in precisely the same way that gives us that early indication of some early onset of infection."

Ardern said the Government is exploring a "range of possibilities", including New Zealand-run isolation facilities in other countries.

"That has been put to me as a potential option," she said. "But given our experience here in New Zealand around how difficult infection control in facilities is, particularly when you have a large outbreak in the community not just within the facility, I don't think we underestimate the challenge that would exist with that."

The Government wants to make sure pre-departure testing is as robust as it can be, says Jacinda Ardern.
The Government wants to make sure pre-departure testing is as robust as it can be, says Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty

Ardern said concerns over high-risk travellers have been discussed for a while.

"We received some advice on Monday that did not present us options on how to resolve the issue, but it discussed some of the potential things at play. We went back and asked for more work to be done. My view was in the meantime we needed to put a hold on travel," she said. 

"For us it was the fact we had put in place day zero testing as a way to bring down some of the numbers we were seeing come through from high-risk countries. We did see an impact from that. We did see our daily rolling average fall away. 

"We have since then seen sustained numbers coming through, particularly from India, and it gave us cause for concern as to why our pre-departure testing wasn't having that same impact. This gives us the opportunity to look at other options to try and enhance our programme and reduce risk."

Ardern gave an assurance the travel ban is not long-term. 

"This is a temporary suspension and we're very clear on that. We wanted this pause to allow us the chance to see if we can improve the risk that is being presented both to the travellers but also within our system."

As for travellers from India arriving in New Zealand before the ban comes into force on Sunday, Ardern said they will be treated the same as every other arrival. 

"Keep in mind we treat every international arrival as if they potentially have COVID-19. That's always been our practice and that doesn't change," she said. 

"Everyone is screened and so if someone is thought on arrival to potentially have COVID, they may go into our quarantine facility straight away. We then undertake our day zero testing that provides confirmation of whether anyone further needs to go into quarantine."