Government alert to coronavirus but not alarmed, says Minister

7:26 pm on 26 January 2020

Health staff will meet flights arriving in New Zealand from China tomorrow, looking for signs of the Wuhan strain of coronavirus, after four confirmed cases in Australia.

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Photo: 123rf.com

The death toll from the coronavirus outbreak jumped to 56 today, with as many as 2000 people infected world-wide - the vast majority in China.

Health Minister David Clark announced this afternoon that public health staff will be on the ground in Auckland and Christchurch International Airports to take the temperature of incoming passengers who felt unwell.

David Clark said he had been advised the risk of an outbreak in New Zealand remained low and said the government was active and alert, but not alarmed.

"At this stage we have said that we are very alert to any potential risks. The evidence is that so far there have been no cases of communication person to person outside of China but this is a rapidly developing situation and that's why we're taking such a cautious and prepared approach."

He said anyone displaying symptoms will be appropriately contained and any contact with others will be traced.

Dr Clark said the checks were a precaution, but public health staff would remain at the airports for the foreseeable future.

"No monitoring system is perfect, people have remained asymptomatic when they arrived in the country in other situations overseas and so that's why the first and most important thing is the thing that's already been happening which is providing people on those flights with information about where to seek help."

He is urging people to reconsider any travel plans to China and said unnecessary travel to areas of infection should be avoided.

Dr Clark will take a paper to cabinet on Tuesday, to make the novel coronavirus a notifiable disease.

The Ministry of Health said New Zealand laboratories should be ready to test for the novel coronavirus later in the week.

It said until then, samples would be sent to Australia for testing.

Deputy director of public health Dr Harriette Carr said the ministry would remain in close contact with the Australian authorities as they undertook contact tracing.

Meanwhile, a security analyst said New Zealand should explore evacuating its citizens from Wuhan in China, the epicentre of the coronavirus.

The US State Department said it was preparing to evacuate diplomatic staff and some US citizens from Wuhan. Australia is also trying to get any of its citizens in Wuhan out.

The director of the Wellington-based Strategika Group, Jose Sousa-Santos, said New Zealand should consider doing the same.

"It is definitely good to have contingencies in which to ensure that New Zealand citizens are kept safe and not left in harm's way."

Mr Sousa-Santos said New Zealand had a responsibility to include citizens of Pacific Island nations in any evacuation plans from Wuhan.

National wants airport screening

But the National Party said the government needed to start screening for the virus at New Zealand's international airports.

Its health spokesperson, Michael Woodhouse, said given cases were confirmed as close as Australia, serious precautionary measures were needed.

But he said just like with measles and meningococcal disease in Northland, the government was asleep at the wheel.

"The prudent proactive approach by the government is to start screening at our international airports. It's what our neighbours are doing and it's what will control the spread of this disease."

Michael Woodhouse said the government also needed to provide more information and advice to the public.

Concern over international students

Schools that attract international students have been inundated with questions from parents concerned about the spread of the Coronavirus overseas.

Many students return to school this week after their summer holiday.

Independent school ACG Parnell College sent an email to parents after being asked how it is managing the issue of students returning from overseas.

Auckland Secondary Schools Principals Association president Richard Dykes said schools had not received any advice from the government yet and it was business as usual.

"Parents can be really confident in the procedures. The Ministry of Health will take guidance on this; if they feel it's necessary they'll give direct advice to schools through the medical health officer. That hasn't been done at this stage because one assumes there's no immediate risk to schools."

Richard Dykes said he was confident schools would receive information from the government if the situation changed.

Sister city link

The Chinese city under lockdown has a long-running sister city relationship with Christchurch.

The mayors of Wuhan and Christchurch signed a Friendship City Agreement 14 years ago, and celebrated the 10th anniversary with a banquet in the garden city.

A few years ago, The Wuhan Bell, a Chinese bell that is a replica of an ancient musical instrument was put back on display at the council's offices after being damaged in the 2011 earthquake.

The bell is made of ornate bronze and was given to Christchurch when the sister city relationship was first announced.

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