National's Judith Collins is "very concerned" about the medical transfer of a United Nations (UN) worker with COVID-19 in Fiji to New Zealand and is raising questions about potential "political interference".
Health authorities last week approved a request for a UN worker in Fiji who had tested positive for COVID-19 to be transferred to New Zealand for treatment. The request was initially declined for "capacity reasons", but on Thursday approved and the patient was moved to Middlemore Hospital.
"The fluidity of the situation at the metro-Auckland DHB ICUs determined this treatment can be provided," the Ministry of Health said. "The region will continue to work closely together to manage capacity issues."
However, health experts have spoken out against the transfer. One intensive care clinician told Newshub health professionals opposed the move on ethical and safety grounds, while Des Gorman, a professor of medicine at the University of Auckland, said the patient was the recipient of "preferential treatment".
Collins, the National Party leader, on Tuesday morning said the transfer should not have occurred. She asked why the transfer was allowed to go ahead when clinicians were against it and Kiwis wanting to get into New Zealand are unable to due to the managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) system being booked out.
"I am very concerned about this because all the reports we have from the health professionals is that their advice was not to allow this to happen. Somehow the decision has been made to bring this person into New Zealand at risk to New Zealanders."
Collins said people living near Middlemore, including in her Papakura electorate, were worried whether the hospital could cope.
The Ministry of Health, however, said last week that a plan was in place to look after the patient and protect others.
"There are appropriate isolation and infection prevention and control plans in place at all the metro-DHB hospitals to accommodate this patient.
"The approval follows a request for specialist treatment in New Zealand. Requests for medical treatment in New Zealand from overseas jurisdictions, particularly in the Pacific, are common. Every request is considered, carefully taking into account factors such as the clinical needs of the patient, whether safe transport can be arranged and the availability of care in New Zealand."
On Friday night, a health worker at Middlemore was put into quarantine after a "PPE protocol incident" during the Fiji patient's management. That person doesn't have symptoms and "the risks associated are regarded as low".
Collins on Tuesday also raised questions about the involvement of former New Zealand Prime Minister and United Nations Development Programme administrator (UNDP) Helen Clark in the transfer request. Clark told Newshub last week that she had "total confidence" in Middlemore Hospital.
"In this case, Counties Manukau and Middlemore have stepped up to respond to a UN request which will be hugely appreciated by the UN and the patient and her family," Clark said. "NZ is the first port of call for MEDEVAC by the UN in the Pacific and all costs are met in full by it."
Collins wants Clark to "come out and confirm whether or not she was involved in that wading in and where did she go to?".
"We think that Helen Clark, if there is no political interference, should come out and say that."
When it was put to her that Clark says she spoke to health officials and not Government members, Collins reiterated her message.
"I would like her to be able to confirm just who she spoke to and what was the reason for it because ultimately the clinicians have said no, and they were overruled," Collins said.
"We have been told by this Government that just about every decision on COVID, whether it is lockdowns or anything else, has been based on the advice of the ministry from the clinicians, not from the former leader of the Labour Party."
Newshub has contacted Clark for comment.
National's Foreign Affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee wants to know what the "conditions were that made them change their mind".
"I think it sets a very interesting precedent but we know very little about the case and exactly what the circumstances were that made that massive U-turn in Government decision-making."
Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta said on Tuesday that the transfer process was "dealt with at an officials level"
Dr Ayesha Verrall, who was the acting COVID-19 Response Minister last week, said at the time that ministers were not involved in the decision-making.
"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."
UN Resident Coordinator for Fiji Sanaka Samarasinha also told Newshub last week there was no preferential treatment.