Acting COVID-19 Response Minister Ayesha Verrall defends 'back and forth' over whether Fijian coronavirus patient could be treated in New Zealand

Acting COVID-19 Response Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall has defended "back and forth" over whether a Fijian COVID-19 patient could be treated in New Zealand. 

The Ministry of Health confirmed to Newshub on Thursday that authorities had approved a formal request for the transfer and treatment of a patient from Fiji who had tested positive for the coronavirus. 

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark, who also used to be United Nations Development Programme Administrator, told Newshub the request came from the United Nations and that the patient was a UN worker. 

The patient, UN Resident Coordinator for Fiji Sanaka Samarasinha, will be treated at Middlemore Hospital. 

But the patient's request was initially declined earlier this week by the Ministry of Health over "capacity reasons", sparking questions about how New Zealand could deal with its own outbreak. 

"Humanitarian flights looking after people critically ill is not a decision ministers take. It's an operational decision between clinicians and the ministry," Dr Verrall told reporters on Friday, at the launch of the first mass vaccination event in south Auckland. 

"I didn't have visibility of that and I'm not aware of the specifics, but just from my experience as a doctor, these are complex issues transferring critically ill people between countries, and it's normal to have a bit of back and forth about those things."

Dr Verrall was asked if the Ministry of Health's initial decline of the offer over capacity constraints was of concern to her, given New Zealand currently has no community cases of COVID-19 to put major strain on capacity. 

Fiji recorded 1057 new cases on Wednesday in just 24 hours, and more than 200 people have died. The transfer of the patient marks the first time the UN has evacuated anyone with COVID-19 in the Pacific.

"Normally when you're arranging a patient transfer, particularly internationally for a critically ill person, there is a bit of back and forth about how that works out," Dr Verrall said. 

"I'm not surprised that people discuss capacity issues as it happens. That's normal."

Dr Collin Tukuitonga, Auckland University Associate Professor of Public Health, told Newshub the transfer is a bad idea. 

"I think it's a dreadful decision for a number of reasons. One is it puts us at unnecessary risk," he said. "We are, in a sense, playing with fire."