23 Jan 2021

Govt should look at closing border to UK arrivals - professor

1:24 pm on 23 January 2021

A public health expert is urging the government to seriously consider temporarily closing the border to arrivals from the UK and review the border system, with the new strain rife there now thought to be more deadly as well as far more infectious.

A deserted international arrival area at Auckland Airport while the city was in level 3 lockdown in May.

Photo: Brett Phibbs / PhibbsVisuals

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced overnight that government scientists now believe the new variant there may be 30 percent more deadly.

The evidence of several UK health bodies has been assessed by scientists on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) which advises the government.

The group concluded there was a "realistic possibility" that the virus had become more deadly, but this is far from certain.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government's chief scientific advisor, said the evidence on lethality "is not yet strong", however, the findings were causing concern.

New Zealand's Ministry of Health here confirmed the variant, known as B.1.1.7, has been detected in 29 people in our quarantine system. Another seven people in MIQ have tested positive for the South Africa variant, which also spreads more easily, but so far no evidence suggests it causes more severe disease.

Professor Nick Wilson

Professor Nick Wilson Photo: RNZ Insight / John Gerritsen

Otago University public health professor Nick Wilson said this is now the most dangerous period the country has faced since the August outbreak.

"Because of the change in the virus, it is really time to take that increased risk more seriously," Professor Wilson said.

"We really do need a serious look at reducing the number of infected people arriving, and improving the quality of the whole border control arrangements.

"There's a genuine case for actually stopping all arrivals [from the UK] until we improve the border facilities."

Dr Wilson said good changes have been made recently by the government, including pre-flight testing, increasing the amount of testing in facilities, but this is not enough.

"I think the increasing risks make a very serious review quite urgent. Maybe as an interim thing they need to tighten the cap on the number of people coming from the particularly high-risk countries of the UK and USA. I really think there's some urgency to doing a complete overhaul of the system."

Dr Wilson said better masks need to be worn by both staff and returnees in the facilities and smoking areas - which were found to have played a part in the Russian seamen quarantine outbreak - should be eliminated. Ventilation in hotels needed to be improved, and a review should also look at the safety of shared exercise areas.

He said there are also limits to hotel-based quarantine and a case could be made to move it to more rural facilities.

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