Coronavirus: COVID-19 testing, isolation needs urgent attention - Air NZ staff

By Nita Blake-Persen of RNZ

Air New Zealand staff say there are a multitude of loopholes in the airline's border controls - and COVID-19 testing and isolation requirements need urgent attention.

The Health Minister on Wednesday met with Air New Zealand to discuss ways to tighten COVID-19 restrictions, after saying he was concerned with their procedures.

While returning travellers must undergo strict 14-day isolation requirements, the air crews bringing them home are largely exempt.

One person working on Air New Zealand's international flights told Checkpoint there had been unease for sometime among crews about the current rules, which mean only those returning from America are required to self-isolate, have a COVID-19 test on day two and continue to self-isolate until that test comes back negative.

"I think there's a multitude of loopholes, and some of them are due to the way the airline operates but also unfortunately, I believe that the loopholes and the vulnerabilities at the border, are due to the way things have been designed by Ministry of Health rules."

He recently returned from a long haul flight which was not to America, so he is not required to self isolate.

"However, I'm doing that, because... it's the right thing to do. So I am managing the quarantine at home.

"But many crew have difficulty with that, they might have flatmates or they might have the situation so that they cannot physically isolate at home without putting people at risk."

He said it was vital there was a stand down period and testing between every international flight, especially because the burden was placed entirely on the crew themselves, and staff could fly home domestically to self isolate after completing a long-haul flight.

"In my mind, every flight is similar risk and it's regardless of how many days you're over in those destinations - they all carry the same amount of risk and I don't know why the Ministry of Health or Air New Zealand is able to justify having lower testing requirements for certain trips."

The Ministry of Health website states that because of the importance of maintaining international air routes, New Zealand-based international air crew are mostly exempt from requirements for isolation if they meet certain conditions.

They include wearing gloves and masks when in passenger areas and full PPE when dealing with a sick passenger suspected of having COVID-19.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said those requirements were agreed on by Air New Zealand and the Ministry of Health, but there was nothing to indicate air crews had been the source of any issues.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins said he met with Air New Zealand on Wednesday morning to discuss their testing protocols and they were working through those practicalities.

The staffer told Checkpoint while Air New Zealand is doing the right thing most of the time, isolation and testing on every international flight has to happen.

"They have a fiscal imperative, which is weighing very heavily on everyone and they would not want to have the extra cost of the stand down between every single flight and the testing. But it's the only way to be [able] to have better surety protection from the virus getting back into our community."

Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran said he was supportive of the government considering options for improvements to their current testing regime, and adds the protocols the airline currently has in place are proving to work, because there has not been a case of COVID-19 in the airline since early April.

Air NZ CEO Greg Foran's response

"Not all systems are watertight. But there are effective ways to minimise risk and I think Air New Zealand's record since April shows that those measures are working. And I think it's also good that you constantly review them.

"We've not had any COVID-19 cases from any Air New Zealanders since April 7, despite all the flying that we're doing. We're into the United States, up to Asia and Australia, and dealing with lots and lots of passengers around New Zealand.

"There's a reasonable degree of testing that's going on as well. About 1300 of our international crew have been tested over that period. They've all been fine."

Foran said he had a good conversation on Wednesday with Hipkins. "We'll continue to work through with them. I'm not across where his exact thinking is at the moment, we had a good dialogue this morning and I shared with him what we were doing and we're all on the same page there. He's going to come back to me with anything that he requires.

"We'll continue to work through with the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Transport, and look at anything else we can do. We've implemented more measures last week with Auckland going into level 3. Clearly we've had some social distancing at this point, but we've also ensured that everyone's got masks when they're departing Auckland, we're strongly encouraging masks around the rest of the country and providing those."

Foran said the audit of protocols was done in association with the Ministry of Health to ensure staff were following procedures. 

"I'm very confident and have a lot of trust in our people. We are human, but the results speak for themselves in terms of the success we've had to date."