18 Jun 2020

Covid-19 prevention at borders: 'Clearly we have a slack system' - Skegg

1:30 pm on 18 June 2020

The slack quarantine arrangements revealed in Auckland and Christchurch over the last 24 hours are mind-boggling, a prominent epidemiologist says.

Air New Zealand planes parked up at Auckland Airport during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Air New Zealand planes parked up at Auckland Airport during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Supplied / Air New Zealand

University of Otago Medical School epidemiologist Sir David Skegg is also critical of Air New Zealand. He says it's not being stringent enough with the amount of PPE crews use, they should not be allowed to fly domestically straight after international flights and 48 hours' self-isolation for those crews is not enough to protect against the spread of Covid-19.

It was not mandatory for all passengers to wear masks which was contrary to how other airlines are operating and crew members only used full PPE when they were dealing with a sick patient.

As the heat comes on the government over quarantine and managed isolation facilities, questions are being raised over the rules applied to international airline crew and the risk of bringing Covid-19 into the country.

The government is under scrutiny after two family members were given compassionate leave from managed isolation and travelled from Auckland to Wellington without being tested for Covid-19. They have subsequently tested positive.

Meanwhile, under new health ministry guidelines, Air New Zealand international crew returning home after a trip of between two and seven days abroad are allowed to fly domestically to their homes to self-isolate for 48 hours, before having a virus test and awaiting test results. They are not required to quarantine or self isolate for 14 days as other international arrivals are.

Skegg told Nine to Noon he is concerned that there are significant risks in the way Air New Zealand is operating.

Skegg was responding to an interview with E Tu union's head of aviation, Savage, who told Nine to Noon that his members are saying that airline staff are following the existing rules, although for the long-term they are worried that people might breach them.

Savage said in the last six weeks he did not believe cabin crew members had breached the rules during layovers in San Francisco and Los Angeles, however, the union is working with the Ministry of Health on a survey to ensure that remains the case.

"We don't want to turn cabin crew into pariahs because they're doing a really difficult job. But what we want to do is fix the problems ... let's plug the gaps in the system."

The rules included wearing PPE (face masks and gloves) on flights, when they arrived at terminals in New Zealand and while being transported and checking in to their hotels.

During their layovers they had to remain in their hotel rooms and could not socialise with one another or use gyms or swimming pools.

Crews were finding the rules hard because they were used to socialising with each other, but at the same time they did not want to bring the virus back to the country or get sick themselves.

Murphy defended the 48 hours of self-isolation, saying they were "making forays out of New Zealand" during which they wear PPE and stay in hotel rooms so they were not exposed to the same level of risk as other travellers. They should be paid during this time and if the self-isolation was to be extended to 14 days, the government would need to fit the bill because the airline could not afford it, he said.

Sir David Skegg

Sir David Skegg Photo: Department, University of Otago, NZ

Skegg said the epidemiology of Covid-19 was not complicated but a lot of discussion in this country ignored the facts.

"Two days' isolation is clearly not adequate to rule out infection, and what's more, a Covid-19 test after 48 hours may well be negative even though the person is infected. Many people will not get a positive test till five, six or seven days after infection."

The only way to exclude infection was to quarantine for 14 days, he said.

Skegg said the cost of rearranging schedules so that the Air New Zealand crews could self-isolate for 14 days was "trivial" compared with the cost the country had already borne to eliminate the virus.

Fears elimination status may evaporate

He was worried that what he had heard in the last 24 hours meant the current status of elimination would not last long.

"We should all enjoy alert level 1 while we can because clearly we have a slack system. What we have learned in the last 24 hours about the quarantine and isolation arrangements in Auckland and Christchurch is just mind-boggling. I just cannot believe that so many people have been able to flout the very necessary precautions."

He said that with about 200 people leaving quarantine early on compassionate grounds the country urgently needed to know how many had left their hotels without a test. He did not accept that there were no records to show this information.

"There's clearly been less testing than we were promised."

There was a big mis-match about what was happening and what the country had been told regarding those in quarantine being tested after day three and day 12. The run of more than 20 days without a Covid-19 case may be because testing of travellers was not being carried out.

In Australia, positive tests of travellers were being detected almost every day.

With regard to a children's birthday party being held in one of the quarantine hotels, it was completely unacceptable, he said.

"People have to be kept separate ... It sounds as if the arrangements in this country have been utterly slack and yet we've got the most to lose because we've eliminated Covid-19. We're one of the few countries that has said we don't have to practise social isolation ..."

Meanwhile, an epidemiologist said the chances of the two positive Covid-19 cases now in Wellington having passed the virus on is probably quite small.

Otago University associate professor Patricia Priest said while that's the case it's important every contact is traced quickly.

The Ministry of Health has identified 313 people as contacts, including other hotel staff and guests, health staff, and those on the flight they took from Brisbane.

Dr Priest said the contact tracing of all the people on the plane would have happened anyway - even if the people had tested positive and stayed in quarantine.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs