22 Jun 2020

'We are set up for cases to emerge' - Jacinda Ardern defends border policy

3:42 pm on 22 June 2020

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is pushing back at National's claims that the mismanagement of the country's borders will hit growth and cost jobs during the recovery from Covid-19.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announcing alert level change on 20 April

Photo: NZME

National is criticising the government's mishandling of the border saying it will cost New Zealanders jobs, by damaging the economy and delaying the reopening of the country.

Economists generally agree that unemployment could spiral to unprecedented levels if New Zealand were to enter lockdown again.

National's finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith told Morning Report that an effective testing scheme at the border is linked to improving the state of our economy.

"If people are fearful that the border is not well managed then that will be delayed and of course every week and every month that is delayed will cost jobs."

He said bringing back foreign students is crucial and he wants to see the borders open as safely and quickly as possible.

"What I'm talking about is the need for confidence and New Zealanders will be naturally fearful if they don't think it was properly managed and they keep hearing stories of the rules not being followed ... for goodness sake restore the confidence."

Ardern told Morning Report that all the way through the pandemic, the opposition has called on the government to be more liberal about letting people in at the borders and she has pushed back against that.

She disagreed that the recent revelations about a slack approach to supervising managed isolation was costing the country jobs. She said Covid-19 is still a pandemic that is growing internationally with 8 million cases and over 100,000 cases emerging a day around the world.

"We have to continue to take a rigorous approach so I make no apology for that. Their calls for opening the borders and being more liberal at the borders - now is not the right time.

"Most countries continue domestically to battle this virus. We happen to be seeing it in our quarantine facilities as opposed to our general community, so we are in a privileged position."

She said there is no need to reduce the number of countries people are returning to New Zealand from.

The number of people returning has doubled since last month and there are flights from countries that hadn't been connected earlier, including high-risk countries.

There are now around 4270 people in 20 facilities, Ardern said.

She said there was a large number of staff overseeing them, with a doubling of Defence Force staff in recent days, more police and also aviation security staff. Tests were being carried out at day three and 12 and there were daily health checks on all those in isolation. The country still had under 10 positive cases in a week, while Australia had just announced 19 in one day.

"We are seeing them in quarantine where we are set up for cases to emerge. ...We treat all those 4000 as if they have it."

Some travellers were bussed to a hotel in Rotorua at the weekend because Auckland hotels are now full. It was always the plan to look at other centres from this week, Ardern said, however, there were robust criteria applied to any facility that is chosen.

"We don't take over a facility until we absolutely consider it to be appropriate which is one of the reasons we didn't take one over in Auckland recently. It didn't meet Commodore [Digby] Webb's expectations."

Ardern said she was expecting to see the results of Air Commodore Webb's audit of the way facilities were being managed this week.

MP slams use of Rotorua hotel

Todd McClay

Todd McClay Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

National Party Rotorua MP Todd McClay said the government is showing no respect for people in the city by sending international passengers there for isolation without notice.

Some aviation security staff had arrived in Rotorua at midday on Saturday to make arrangements and less than seven hours later seven busloads arrived.

"The Jacinda Ardern government has shown no understanding or respect for the people of Rotorua. They woke on Sunday morning to find out their city is being used for quarantine. It wasn't until midday that we started to get any assurance that actually the government was thinking about public health and safety."

He said the chosen hotel might be happy about receiving guests at a time when there were no international tourists, however, he believed staff were unhappy because they only found out at the last minute about the arrangements.

He told Morning Report domestic tourism was important and with the school holidays just two weeks away, he was now hearing that other Rotorua hotels were being approached to be used for managed isolation.

"If the government, because they haven't got a plan, fills Rotorua hotels up with quarantined New Zealanders returning, then what does that say to others who might want to come here to the restaurants, shops and tourism businesses, which just won't have any business over the school holidays."

Rotorua Mayor Steve Chadwick said she's been assured that the management of two hotels for Covid-19 isolation will be "watertight".

The hotels had been closed, but will now be used as isolation facilities for people returning to New Zealand.

Chadwick said there was some anxiety in the community about the use of the facilities.

She hoped the hotel use would not discourage domestic tourists from visiting Rotorua.

Local iwi, local police, the district health board and council were all notified of the plans last week, she said.

Te Arawa Lakes Trust chair Sir Toby Curtis said he was only told about the move on the day they were expected to arrive.

The iwi was concerned about the risk to their people, who make up half the town's population, he said.

However, Tā Toby said he was satisfied by the measures in place to control those in isolation.

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker

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

Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker told First Up the review of border processes announced last week should look at whether the protocols are robust and whether there are systems to ensure they are applied consistently.

"Once the number of facilities and the number of people in these isolation and quarantine areas increases then the risks of errors happening also rises because you've just got a lot more staff involved, a lot more things can go wrong."

Baker said the chances were low that people coming into the country who had the virus would go undetected at the border.

"These are cases that you want to detect - this means the system is working because these people are being detected at the border or in these facilities and they got infected overseas so technically they are not New Zealand-acquired cases."

However, they are still added to the New Zealand total. That's a weakness of the international reporting system we've got, he said.

"Very few countries are eliminating this virus at the moment so those that have done that almost need a different way of presenting this data. They don't affect our elimination position because they're not cases of transmission in New Zealand.

"Over the course of a year we might have 100 or 200 of these cases. It doesn't mean we've got transmission in New Zealand. In some ways I'd be more worried if we weren't detecting any of these cases."

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