Health Minister Andrew Little admits home isolation system wasn't ready for current number of COVID cases

The Health Minister has made a major admission - the home isolation system "wasn't ready" to cope with more than 120 daily cases of COVID-19 in the community.

Andrew Little has told Newshub community COVID cases are waiting up to two days before anyone from public health makes contact with them.

In the midst of a pandemic, it's critical people with COVID get care and information as quickly as possible. Then on Wednesday came a significant admission - that's not happening. 

"What I've been told is it's delays of up to two days. If it's longer, it's longer," Little said. "Any delays are not acceptable."

The minister said cases should be getting contacted by public health within hours. He says the reason for the delays is that the system's struggling.

"The system wasn't ready for the rapid escalation in the number of daily cases. Whereas the system was preparing for 100 to 120 cases a day, we're seeing 150 to 200 cases a day and it just did not expect to be responding to that volume of cases."

Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker says he's "very concerned" if the health system is struggling at 120 cases.

"Look I'm very surprised with the suggestion that the system cannot cope with more than 120 cases a day, because when it was being discussed last year the intent was that it could manage up to a 1000 cases a day."

As a result, vulnerable people are languishing at home. People have been isolating in cars - and as Newshub reported last night in a garden shed.

"I'm very concerned about any case I hear of vulnerable people not having the support," Little says.

"I've said to officials, I expect changes to be made immediately."

Although the Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield had a different take on the isolation programme, saying it's "working well".

The CEO of South Seas Healthcare, Lemalu Silao Vaisola Sefo, says that's not the case.

"The common thing that's coming through is that there's a three to five-day lag and that's directly from our families to our staff," he says.

The South Seas team is assisting with mobile testing but Lemalu says staff get regularly called by people isolating at home for support with food despite South Seas not being involved in that part of the programme.

Lemalu says they had success supporting the Assembly of God Church of Samoa cluster, as they had more ownership of the response.

"We want to be part of the process rather than just sort of being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Otherwise we'll continue chasing our tail," he says.

There are now 2664 people isolating at home, including 1230 positive cases. There have been three deaths in home isolation. Wednesday's death was a man in his 60s isolating at home in Glen Eden. It's not known what support the man received from health services or if he had a pulse oximeter.

"I don't have any of that information just at the moment," Dr Bloomfield told reporters.

Slow delivery of key information - it's affecting the Director-General and people at home with COVID.

Prof Baker told Newshub quickly identifying and assisting community cases not only reduces the risk of further transmission but also the risk of people getting seriously unwell and dying at home.

There are only 344 community cases in Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) with COVID Response Minister Chris Hipkins saying it's become the "default" option for most as they'd prefer to be at home.

But Prof Baker thinks people in overcrowded homes would be better off in MIQ and said it's absurd people flying in from low-risk countries are going into MIQ when vulnerable people in the community with COVID could be using the spots.