Coronavirus: COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins defends not telling Wellington about possible COVID-19 outbreak on Tuesday night

Chris Hipkins has defended not telling the country about the potential COVID-19 outbreak in Wellington on Tuesday night, saying there was little information and few people would have been up to hear about it anyway.

New South Wales officials on Tuesday evening announced two flights between Sydney and Wellington had been linked to a confirmed case.

Hipkins, the COVID-19 Response Minister, told The AM Show on Thursday he was notified around 8:45pm. But rather than hold a late-night televised press conference - like what happened in August last year when Auckland had an outbreak - he sat on it until the following morning.

"The reality is that a case you get notified of at 8:45pm, I don't think we've ever held a press conference after midnight to reveal the details of that. It takes several hours to actually get the core information together."

On August 11, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfied went live on TV, radio and online at 9:15pm to tell New Zealand its 102-day streak of no community cases had been broken. 

They had been informed a few hours beforehand. Hipkins said the time difference between Australia and New Zealand meant by the time they had enough information to go public with the latest scare, most Kiwis would have been in bed.

"Not many people would hear it, not many people would know about it. It takes a while to get the information together. 

"There are two things at play here - one is that in the middle of the night, some of the people you're trying to contact... will be asleep and they won't be answering their phones. There's also the trans-Tasman gap as well, we have to deal with that too. There's actually a time difference between New Zealand and New South Wales we have to account for.

"You've also got to know what you're talking about. If we held a press conference at midnight, most of the answers to the questions would be 'I don't know'."

Chris Hipkins.
Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: The AM Show

It was unclear from the initial information released by Australian officials whether the positive case was even on the flights - just that they had been "associated with confirmed cases of COVID-19". By Wednesday morning, New Zealand officials had confirmed it, and started to reveal what they knew. By then, New Zealand media had already begun reporting on the case.

"We do get notified of cases from time to time, and many cases once we get further information, there actually isn't an increased risk to the public from those cases, once we start that contact tracing process. So it is important we get that basic information to answer... like where's the person been, is there an increased risk? ...

"Within 12 hours of this case being notified to us, all of that information was out there and public. Bearing in mind that was an overnight period, I actually think the team did very well to get that information out there."

University of Auckland professor of medicine Des Gorman told The AM Show earlier Thursday morning at the very least, Wellingtonians should have been told to stay home on Wednesday. 

"Yesterday all those people went to work in Wellington who shouldn't have gone to work - they should have been forewarned the previous evening," said Dr Gorman. "The argument was 'there's a process we have to follow and we have to sort out the risk' and so on. I don't accept that. Just put the names out there, and if the next day you have to edit them, so be it."

He said most people would have been okay with being told to stay home unnecessarily, if the alternative was going to work and potentially being exposed to the virus.