23 Jan 2020

Wuhan virus: National Party calls for stronger action on borders

3:08 pm on 23 January 2020

The government is being accused of sitting on its hands and leaving New Zealand vulnerable to the deadly coronavirus.

Michael Woodhouse

National Party's health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Deaths from China's new flu-like virus rose to 17, with more than 540 cases confirmed, leading the city at the center of the outbreak to close transportation networks and urge citizens not to leave.

The previously unknown coronavirus strain is believed to have emerged from illegally traded wildlife at an animal market in the central city of Wuhan. Thailand has confirmed four cases, while the United States, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have each reported one - all involving people travelling from Wuhan.

It's been confirmed the virus can pass from person to person.

National Party's health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse said new viruses could rapidly spread and take hold before symptoms become apparent.

"The prudent response would be to ... screen visitors for early symptoms."

The government has a national pandemic plan that can be activated in response to viral outbreaks.

New Zealand has followed a similar route to Australia by increasing the visibility of information via health advice cards, said director of public health Caroline McElnay.

"We don't have any direct flights in from Wuhan, it's likely that some people could come in to New Zealand [from Wuhan] via Australia," McElnay told Morning Report yesterday.

"We're certainly not complacent about this, we have assessed that our risk is low and we're certainly prepared to do what we need to do to ensure this virus doesn't spread."

Dr McElnay said there was also a policy in place that required airlines to contact public health units before landing if someone onboard was sick.

Read more on the coverage about the new coronavirus:

However, Woodhouse said the fact there weren't any direct flights from Wuhan did not mean increased vigilance and screening at the border were not needed.

He said given Chinese New Year celebrations were imminent, there was an increased risk with large numbers of international visitors expected, combined with large gatherings.

"With reports Wuhan has stopped all public transport and flights to try to contain the deadly virus, it's clear the government is not doing enough to prevent the disease arriving in New Zealand."

The National Party is calling on the government to:

  • Make the coronavirus a specific notifiable disease
  • Ask health questions on arrival about travel history and any symptoms for those who have travelled from affected areas
  • Heighten health surveillance at international airports with appropriate equipment and staff
  • Ensure all DHBs have outbreak protocols in place

Health Minister David Clark said the government was "alert but not alarmed" about the outbreak.

He said the official pandemic response had been triggered and government agencies would be brought together tomorrow to discuss a potential response.

He said information for incoming passengers from China was already being distributed at the border.

Woodhouse was also critical of the record of Associate Health Minister Julie-Anne Genter, saying her "outbreak management" had been poor.

"With the meningococcal disease in Northland and dealing with measles across New Zealand being a case of 'too little too late' ... the government must not make the same mistake a third time," he said.

Yesterday, Genter in a statement said the government was closely monitoring the situation as well as World Health Organisation's recommendations.

The WHO's head of emergencies program, Mike Ryan, said the priority was to find the roots of how the virus was passing between people.

Screening of passengers and infected people overseas

In a national advisory to health professionals earlier this month, the Ministry of Health said it was also monitoring the situation but not recommending any specific measures for travellers beyond the regular advice given to people arriving in the country - urging them to seek medical advice if they get sick within a month of their arrival.

Authorities in Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan as well as San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York have stepped up screening of air passengers from Wuhan.

Professor Michael Baker, a medical epidemiologist at the University of Otago, yesterday told Morning Report thermal screening was ineffective, as shown in research, and not recommended since it could not pin down the potential type of illness a traveller had.

Current measures at the border are risk-based screening assessments that increase chances of detecting passengers who arrive ill or may have been in contact with infected people, he said.

He said there was also good provision in national pandemic planning documents to ensure that travellers to pacific nations departing from New Zealand were not infected.

"I think we have a huge responsibility to not export this disease to the Pacific."

However, Prof Baker today told RNZ that New Zealand's distance from China provided very little protection.

"We have to direct flights from several cities in China into Auckland and Christchurch, and we also have flights that transit very swiftly through Australia to other airports in New Zealand, Wellington and Queenstown, for example," he said.

"So we are very exposed, just as Australia and the US and all of Europe is very exposed."

Prof Baker hoped the epidemic had been contained, but he said that seemed very unlikely.

"I would say it is a time for maximum effort in New Zealand in terms of rolling out our pandemic plan and really co-ordinating all of the hundreds of people around New Zealand who need to respond to this kind of threat," he said.

- RNZ / Reuters

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