23 Jun 2020

Covid-19: Minister rules out ballot to limit returning NZers

9:44 am on 23 June 2020

The minister in charge of managed isolation and quarantine facilities has ruled out running a ballot to limit the number of New Zealanders returning, despite facilities reaching capacity.

Housing Minister Megan Woods speaking at a media conference after an announcement that she would take charge of managed isolation and quarantine of returning New Zealanders, after a series of failures.

Minister Megan Woods says isolation capacity will be increased in the coming days. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Yesterday, Megan Woods said there was capacity for 4607 beds or spaces for managed isolation with 4148 people already in isolation, but she was confident there would be no issues as more people arrived.

Woods told Morning Report that there were a range of options on the table to manage the flow of incoming travellers.

"We're working very closely with the airlines to have a very detailed understanding of what the inflows and outflows from our quarantine and managed isolation facilities are.

"We're working constructively with airlines, we're saying that this is the situation on the ground. We need to manage demand at the time, we're bringing on more capacity so we're not saying we're going to just manage with what we've got."

Increasing capacity would be happening in the next two weeks, she said. The government is looking at enhancing capacity in the areas already being used for managed isolation, including Christchurch, Wellington, Auckland and Rotorua.

Woods said it was about matching demand and supply.

"What we're working on is how we can ensure before someone gets on a plane that we have somewhere for them to stay.

"One of the complexities that we're operating with in this system, is that we never know 100 percent for certain how many people are going to be on a plane until people walk into the plane and sit down.

"But it's not just a case of booking hotels ... this is logistically incredibly complex, it's also very resource-heavy. In order to bring on those certain facilities, we need to bring around 150 more staff."

She said there were no plans to stop flights bringing back New Zealanders from Covid-19 hotspots.

"We are behaving like everyone who is coming to New Zealand could have Covid. So the way in which we're asking them to go into managed isolation facility, where there's very strict social distancing rules ... we're asking those New Zealanders who are returning to make exactly the same sacrifice that we all made for five weeks."

She said they were working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well to forecast arrivals, but the focus was mainly on the coming days and weeks.

There was roughly a doubling of people returning to the country last month, and modelling suggested there could be a 4 percent growth per fortnight on that, Woods said.

With increasing numbers of people arriving at the border, Cabinet will soon consider a co-payment scheme.

The budget for managed isolation is $298 million for the June to December period, with more than $80m already spent.

But the government is being warned not to force returning New Zealanders to cover some of that cost, as it may impede on their right to return home.

Barrister Michael Botts told Morning Report introducing such a scheme could be problematic.

"It's different for example if you're a non-resident or non-citizen, you're coming here to take part in a commercial enterprise. Then you've got a commercial argument that there should be a sharing of costs, because taxpayers shouldn't be required to pay for a private company to make a profit.

"However, when you're a citizen or resident and coming to a place where you have a right, the right of entry, to argue that you have to pay a fee for your detention for a health outcome that's beneficial to all people is arguably problematic."

But whether it was unlawful was unclear yet, he said, although it could potentially be in breach of the Bill of Rights Act.

"To impose [a cost on] New Zealand citizens who are overseas and wish to come back home ... is something which may considered disproportionate and severe."

On the other hand, Minister Woods said legal advice was being taken into account.

"It's not that simple and there's a range of issues that we need to work our way through.

"We're trying to find a fair and balanced way to do this ... there's some ambiguity within this that we just need to work our way through in a very measured and careful way and make sure we have a legal basis for what we're doing."

She said they would be looking at how other countries were implementing similar measures and "thinking about what makes sense in a New Zealand context".

Social distancing adherence in isolation facilities

When someone arrives into a managed isolation facility, they are expected to not come into contact with anyone other than their travelling counterparts.

Woods said she was confident that was happening now.

"We've brought in more personnel in hotels on Friday, we've doubled the armed forces presence there, in terms of the defence staff that are in there.

"We are saying to people that you cannot come into close contact, i.e. you cannot be in a position where you can spread Covid. Just like when we went to the supermarket under level 4, that you needed to stay two metres away and needed to practice safety precautions ... that's what we're asking people in our facilities to do."

After a new case of Covid-19 is detected at a facility, the place goes into lockdown and a deep clean is done.

"There could be a few hours difference [before people are allowed to leave], but again I go back to the point ... compare that to the five weeks' sacrifice that we all made to get us to this very privileged position we're in."

In addition, CCTV footage of common areas in the facility are reviewed while in lockdown, Woods said.

"Just making sure there haven't been breaches of those physical distancing [rules]," she said.

"Actually what we need is for those returning New Zealanders to take their responsibility seriously. We're asking them to make a sacrifice and adhere to rules and procedures that we all adhered to for five weeks.

"If you're joining the team of five million, there are some sacrifices to be made."

She said the current measures in place were a strong line of defence to prevent community outbreaks.

Woods yesterday updated Cabinet on the work she had done with Air Commodore Digby Webb to review and continue to manage the facilities. Their audit of managed isolation facilities is expected this week.

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