24 Jun 2020

Rigorous border system 'matter of life or death', public health expert says

5:39 am on 24 June 2020

A leading public health expert is backing the Opposition's attack on Covid-19 border controls saying a rigorous system is a matter of life or death.

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker. Photo: University of Otago, Wellington / Luke Pilkinton-Ching​

It comes as the government unveils its plan to toughen the regime by routinely testing frontline staff who deal with the thousands of people returning from global hotspots.

The government has labelled New Zealand's border controls as some of the toughest in the world, but those measures are now being tightened even further.

Health Minister David Clark said from now on all airport staff, as well as those those working in managed isolation or quarantine hotels, and the drivers who get new arrivals from the airport will be tested for Covid-19 at higher rates, even if they don't have symptoms.

Under the new plan, flight crew returning from any at risk country will have to return a negative test before they are allowed home, Clark said.

"The United States currently is recognised as the high risk route that Air New Zealand, for example, is flying, so people flying where there is high Covid-19," he said.

Clark couldn't say which other countries might be considered hot spots because the situation is changing too rapidly.

Air New Zealand will meet with staff today to discuss what the new measures mean for them.

This will be their new reality with border restrictions likely to stay in place for months - if not years.

Epidemiologist Michael Baker said the measures in place are reassuring but he warns there's a long road ahead.

"We have thousands of people now in quarantine at many different locations, and we have to make sure these protocols are now being applied, very systematically to all those groups," Baker said.

With a general election just months away, it is possible another party could be responsible for maintaining the country's line of defence.

National's Health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse has criticised the many border blunders in recent weeks and said a National government wouldn't have made the same mistakes.

"These are absolutely appalling lapses in judgement and process that have lead to the risk that the virus comes back into the community much, much greater," Woodhouse said.

In the meantime, Baker said the opposition's ongoing criticism of the government's Covid-19 response is justified.

"It is a matter of life or death... that all of these systems work well, so I think a lot of people are doing their jobs by looking very hard at these protocols and the way they are being applied," Baker said.

He said it is likely there will be more mistakes at the border simply because the isolation and testing regime will be in place for so long.

Another reason, he said, why a rigorous system is so vital.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs