4 Feb 2022

Covid-19: 'Compassion fatigued' - NZ healthcare worker says border restrictions broke her

12:19 pm on 4 February 2022

When Sinead Aldrich left New Zealand for London and her great OE in 2019, she never guessed just how profound that experience would be, still less how dislocating it has been for her ever since to be separated from friends and whānau at home.

Passengers wearing masks arrive from New Zealand at Sydney International Airport on 16 October, 2020, during the operation of the trans-Tasman bubble.

New Zealand's Covid-19 border restrictions will begin to be relaxed from late next month. Photo: AFP / David Gray

The young occupational therapist found herself on the frontline dealing with death and distress amid the initial Covid-19 wave of 2020.

Just as distressing in a different way, she said today, have been the policies that have not allowed her to get back to New Zealand. Not yet anyway.

Aldrich told Morning Report yesterday's announcement on the gradual reopening of New Zealand's borders after almost two years of restrictions was a relief, but she remained cautious.

"I have been feeling this relief a few times and I just hope it will actually happen. I don't think it will feel real 'till I get on the plane."

She said the stress she felt as a new variant hit the UK late last year, combined with the knowledge she wouldn't be able to come come to New Zealand, had broken her.

"I remember, just before Christmas, it started feeling like it did last year [2020] with the new wave, we're like, is Omicron going to be the same? And then finding out just before Christmas that I couldn't come [home]... I was already emotionally, compassion fatigued from what we'd been through the last 18 months at that time."

Aldrich said she hadn't attempted to use the MIQ lottery system despite being desperate to see her friends and family in New Zealand.

"I didn't want to attempt to come back when I was working front-line with all the Covid patients, and then also the two weeks of isolation ... you know, I'd only be able to see my friends and family for like a week before having to come back just for my work commitment here."

She said even if she had managed to gain a spot, it wouldn't have been financially feasible for her.

And while she felt the New Zealand border restrictions had been the correct strategy in the early stages of the pandemic, Aldrich was in favour of the reopening plan now that so many New Zealanders were vaccinated.

"Omicron's in the community now; you can't stop it. I think New Zealand's done an amazing job at keeping it out and keeping, you know, everyone safe but ... there's a bit more than that, there's health and well-being, it is not just physical health but connecting whānau, connecting family."

She said working in the UK's healthcare system over the past few years had been an honour but it had been difficult not being able to ground herself by coming home.

"I would never want to wish [the experience of Covid-19 in the UK] on anyone … how scary it was, not knowing, you know, when the new variant came out.

"The amount of people that I have met over the last two years that are no longer with us and in that time I just haven't been able to ground myself and go back to see my friends and family … it's something me and my colleagues will never ever forget."

Struggling to return to New Zealand to give birth

Taran Singh and his wife Irvin Kaur have been trying to get home to New Zealand before Irvin gives birth in mid April.

Singh told First Up the couple had travelled to India late last year, after border settings were relaxed.

However the same week they arrived, MIQ was reinstated and they found themselves unable to return home.

Singh said they attempted to gain MIQ spots through the sole lottery that has been held since that time, but were unsuccessful.

Kaur is already 30 weeks pregnant and the couple want to avoid a birth in India, which is experiencing a widespread Omicron outbreak.

Her first birth 18 months ago was via Caesarian section and Singh said doctors had informed the couple there was a high chance their next baby would need to be delivered in the same way, so they had applied for an emergency MIQ spot but had so far been unsuccessful.

Singh said New Zealand journalist Charlotte Bellis' situation had brought the plight of pregnant New Zealanders stuck overseas to MIQ's attention.

He said officials were looking at their application again but the couple still had no idea whether they would be granted an emergency spot.

Border protocols 'headed in the right direction' - business leader

One of the most vocal critics of the government's MIQ system has been businessman Sir Ian Taylor.

He told First Up there were some encouraging signs in the government's announcement yesterday but said the devil was in the detail.

"We've gone from having banned rapid antigen tests because they weren't reliable, to now the rapid antigen tests being the one that you use before you fly back into the country."

Sir Ian said one of the big challenges for the government in coming months would be how it managed compliance with the in-coming self-isolation requirements.

He said he would have liked to see movement on business travel sooner but the late February move to self-isolation for New Zealanders returning from Australia at least gave businesses something to plan around.

"From a business perspective, we needed to have been travelling months ago."

Sir Ian last year travelled to the United States to demonstrate how testing and isolation protocols could improve the situation at New Zealand's borders.

He said an additional tool he would like to see employed by New Zealand was a PCR equivalent test used by some other countries, which provided results in half an hour.

"We've been arguing ... that nobody should be able to board a New Zealand-bound flight without taking one of those tests five hours before they get on the flight."

He said that would ensure the entire plane-load of people was negative five hours prior to departure and re-testing them on arrival in New Zealand could quickly confirm they were still negative before they were allowed to go into self-isolation.

Sir Ian also emphasised the continued importance of mask-wearing.

"Get proper masks and wear them properly because you can't catch Covid unless you put yourself in a compromising position."

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