31 Mar 2020

Covid-19: Questions fired in first Epidemic Response Committee meeting

12:59 pm on 31 March 2020

Top health officials fronted this morning as the Epidemic Response Committee held its first public meeting via video conference.

The Epidemic Response Committee holding its first public meeting.

The Epidemic Response Committee holding its first public meeting. Photo: Facebook/New Zealand Parliament

The committee was set up to ensure the government's response to Covid-19 is still scrutinised while Parliament is adjourned.

The head of the All of Government Response, John Ombler, appeared first remotely for questioning.

Ombler said Covid-19 "does truly present an unprecedented challenge to New Zealand".

"This has been happening at an extreme pace. We're learning as we go."

He acknowledged frontline staff and the public for being cooperative in the fight against Covid-19.

Deputy State Services Commissioner John Ombler

Deputy State Services Commissioner John Ombler Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

National's Paul Goldsmith said the quality of the lockdown was a critical issue especially around how successful it was.

He said in his neighbourhood in Ellerslie people living in a local hotel who recently arrived from overseas were seen at the supermarket. He asked if passengers arriving were being given accurate information.

Ombler clarified that for international arrivals - it means quarantine for 14 days, meaning not going to the supermarket and instead getting someone else to bring supplies to them.

Ombler said incoming people going into quarantine must have a satisfactory plan to go into self-isolation or quarantine by themselves.

"Or they go to a site like a hotel where we have purchased a number of rooms," he said.

For those who haven't travelled overseas, they are expected to self-isolate but they can go to the supermarket.

Simon Bridges asked if there were any concerns about overreach while dobbing in neighbours.

Ombler said the strategy adopted aimed at stopping person-to-person spread of the disease.

"The constraints we've placed on people is vital for us containing the spread of Covid-19."

Ombler said dobbing neighbours in was the last resort and was unfortunate.

He said maintaining good personal hygiene and the two-metre distance were important.

The powers to enforce legislation are held by the Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, Director of Civil Defence and Emergency Management Sarah Stuart-Black and Police Commissioner Mike Bush.

Since the Covid-19 government website was launched on 11 March, it has had 3.2 million unique visitors.

He said the Covid-19 website and Facebook were ways of communicating with New Zealanders. Additionally, Whānau Ora and Te Puni Kōkiri have also been updating Māori and Pasifika communities.

Whānau Ora had distributed cleaning packs to families to sanitise their houses, he said.

Ombler said because the disease came to NZ later than other countries, our contact tracing and border measures were able to be determined by having a peek into the future.

"We have been able to learn from what they have done in order to move quickly.

"The whole point is to stop person-to-person spread."

He said there had been talks on improving technology like setting up an app to ensure compliance with quarantine measures.

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs)

Health Minister Dr David Clark said over the past week labs produced more than 1700 tests a day: "Our labs have the capacity to do 3300 tests per day."

"Funding will not be a constraining factor."

Healthline now had double the workforce taking calls since January, and 25 percent was from those who have travelled from overseas.

Testing at the border

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield. 23/03/20

Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said anyone coming back from overseas was effectively treated as a close contact. If they have any symptoms, they are assessed, quarantined and tested.

The reason why everyone at the border is not tested is that the virus could be incubated and there could be false negatives.

When a person arrives, they are asked to self-isolate and their symptoms are monitored. They then take a test accordingly.

It's about getting the testing right he said, responding to Simon Bridges' question as to why everyone at the border wasn't tested.

"A negative test of an asymptomatic person at the border doesn't rule them out," Bloomfield said.

Read more about the Covid-19 coronavirus:

National MP Michael Woodhouse asked what the screening process at the border was now.

Bloomfield said it was similar to what it was before going into alert level 4.

Now it's combined with an entry form with specific questions declaring symptoms.

"All passengers are asked about symptoms."

Bloomfield said if people weren't complying there was a mechanism to notify the police.

"We rely on other New Zealanders to support our efforts ... so that we're all doing our bit."

Woodhouse asked why everyone meant to quarantine couldn't be policed.

Bloomfield said they were being monitored by police, and followed up the contact tracing centre and Healthline.

"Enforcement of self-isolation is not a health responsibility, it is the responsibility of police."