13 Aug 2021

Govt's mixed messaging 'very frustrating' - Tauranga Port Chair

From Checkpoint, 5:14 pm on 13 August 2021

Flip-flopping advice from several government agencies has given Port of Tauranga plenty of headaches this week.

A red alert went up about a foreign-flagged ship - the Rio De La Plata - heading into Tauranga early last week.

Maritime NZ was warned an Australian pilot had been on board who later tested positive for the Delta variant of Covid-19.

After contradictory instructions from New Zealand government agencies, the ship docked in Tauranga, unloading started, stopped and restarted, then stopped with more than 90 port workers forced to isolate and get tested for the virus.

Eleven of the 21 crew on the foreign freighter tested positive. All the port workers have returned negative tests.

"It was very frustrating to have a number of government agencies involved and a number of mixed messages," Port of Tauranga chair David Pilkington told Checkpoint

"Frankly we can't continue to keep having these mistakes. Dare I say it, we dodged another bullet." 

He said Maritime NZ had been informed the Australian pilot who boarded the ship in Australia was not infectious with Covid-19 at the time he was onboard. 

"That was clearly incorrect. Then we got the subsequent message, once that emerged, 'no hold the ship'.

"If a thorough investigation had been carried out in the first instance, it would have been determined high risk, because the pilot was positive, the obvious conclusion was that the crew on the ship may have been infected and given him the the virus, and of course we would have held the ship and no one would have come into contact with it.

"The problem is we have a number of agencies involved, and we have a situation where I think all of the agencies are trying to do the best job they can, but you're dealing with ... take the Ministry of Health for example, they are a policy ministry, they are not an operational ministry.

"I know a number of people have made a call to say: 'This whole thing should be handled by a a specialist group of people'. But you've got a number of agencies trying to talk to each other, you've got jurisdiction issues between DHBs and the public health unit on the ground.

"You've got a whole lot of people involved and the opportunities for mixed messaging in those situations is obvious, so it is very frustrating. And we've been assured since by parties that we need to sit down and we need to do this better." 

Pilkington said his main concern was with pilots boarding the ship in Tauranga, as stevedores do not come into contact with crew. 

"In this case, the 11 ship's crew that tested positive - two of those crew were actually bridge staff.

"So it it was really a testament to our pilots. I mean they obviously wear PPE they're well decked out, they're very conscious of the risk. But it was really a testimony to their thoroughness, that he managed to get on that ship, alongside infected crew, bring it in and get off the ship without contracting the virus.

"If you compare that with the Australian pilot. He got on the ship and got off the ship with the virus. So I really can't say enough about the the quality of the pilots we've got operating that process. But as I say it is high risk."

Pilkington said while it is easy to be critical, he thinks government agencies simply must do better in these situations. 

"This is not good enough because if we keep going on like this, we're going to run out of luck sooner or later."