17 Jun 2020

Covid-19: Isolation audit not enough to ensure safety - expert

From Checkpoint, 5:29 pm on 17 June 2020

An independent review should be held of all the country's airports and ports to ensure correct protocols are being followed when people are released from managed isolation, a prominent epidemiologist says.

Sir David Skegg says we are endangering all the gains made regarding Covid-19 if we allow new cases in at the borders such as the two recent UK arrivals.

Public health physician Otago University Professor Sir David Skegg was commenting on the case of two women who had travelled from the UK to Auckland via Doha and Brisbane.

They were released early from managed isolation at an Auckland hotel so they could travel to Wellington to visit a dying relative. They were not tested for Covid-19 before they departed and have since both been diagnosed with the virus.

The case has caused a political furore.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the two new Covid-19 cases represent an unacceptable failure of the system that should never have happened and cannot be repeated.

She has called in the defence force to oversee all quarantine and managed isolation facilities.

The assistant chief of defence Air Commodore Digby Webb will also audit all existing systems and protocols to make sure they're being fully implemented and will also make any changes needed to strengthen border controls.

But Skegg who was an expert witness at the Epidemic Response Committee told Checkpoint an audit is not enough to ensure the system is safe.

He said he has been concerned for some time that systems for managing arriving travellers might be lax and while he is delighted that Webb will undertake the audits of protocols it's not enough.

"I believe that we urgently need an independent review of all the border and quarantine arrangements, and by the way that's not just at airports, but also at seaports. I've been concerned to hear about crew of ships wandering around Port Chalmers in Dunedin, even going to healthcare facilities."

He doubted that those people had all been tested.

Procedures are more rigorous in Hong Kong and Singapore, he said. In Hong Kong everyone coming in is tested at the airport and waits there for results. Those who test positive are taken to an isolation hospital and those who are negative had to undergo mandatory quarantine for 14 days.

New Zealand had enjoyed "a week of bliss" with people going to bars and rugby matches and the economy starting to recover.

"We put that all at risk if we let people come in carrying the virus."

Skegg was also concerned that 196 people have been given compassionate leave from quarantine and he is concerned whether any of them have not been tested.

"I think we need to raise our game."

He said there needed to be strict protocols around compassionate leave from managed isolation.

"The only safe procedure is 14 days' quarantine ... it's essential those people aren't allowed to leave [isolation] in the first few days. I think to wait for seven days and then to have a negative test is a minimum requirement."

There also needed to be procedures so that those who were released should not be able to mingle with a lot of other people, such as at a large funeral or tangi, he said.