By Lisa Williams
Despite pleas and opposition from many stranded Cook Islanders waiting to head home from lockdown in New Zealand, the first batch of travellers facing 'double quarantine' rules are to check into an Auckland hotel on Friday.
The first of two Air New Zealand repatriation flights from Auckland to Rarotonga is scheduled to leave on Saturday 9 May.
Announcing the news via a statement, instead of the usual Prime Ministerial updates, the Cook Islands Health Ministry Te Marae Ora said the 14-day quarantine plan, suspended by the New Zealand lockdown a month ago, would start once the first group check into the Airport Holiday Inn hotel in Auckland.
They will be Covid-19 tested and if clear, would head to the airport for the flight home.
To keep distancing rules, only half the group or less will be on the first flight home, although it's likely elder travellers, including more than 40 Golden Oldies netballers and supporters at the Atiu Hall in South Auckland, were top of the list.
On arrival in Rarotonga the travellers would be required to undergo a further two weeks of supervised quarantine and another Covid-19 test before being allowed back into their homes and the community.
There had been a wave of online protest and formal opposition via letters to government from some stranded travellers.
Today's announcement provided the only public response so far to their concerns, with Secretary of Health for the Cook Islands, Dr Josephine Aumea Herman, acknowledging the frustration.
In New Zealand to oversee the repatriation process, she said she appreciated that some people had become frustrated waiting to return home.
"But I hope they also realise that back home the whole country has been working very hard to ensure that our people have a safe place to return to and that we have been putting in place procedures to protect, as much as we can, our vulnerable population and to shore up our health system for the good of all our citizens.
"We're all in this together."
New Zealand-based Cook Islands doctor Kiki Maoate said fears from many of the stranded over the impact of being in isolation on top of the lockdown experience were "normal, and part of life".
He said without taking away from the experience of a few who may experience an extreme form of depression, it was normal to be anxious and to lose sleep and have issues at this time.
Dr Maoate said a key part of the challenge was helping people understand the process of quarantine and why things were happening the way they were.
"Anxiety, being depressed, losing sleep over this and dreaming about these things, that's all part of normal life at this time for everyone," he said.
"That reaction (to the quarantine process) and what's going on from our people is normal, and we need to help them through that."
The Cook Islands is one of only a handful of countries which is so far free of Covid-19 and is determined to keep the virus out.
Based on information regarding the dangerous and aggressive behaviour of the virus, Te Marae Ora Cook Islands Ministry of Health had established the current public health measures to ensure the Cook Islands remained Covid-19 free.