24 Jun 2020

Covid-19: 51 out of 55 people not tested before taking compassionate leave under level 1

9:31 am on 24 June 2020

National Party leader Todd Muller says the revelation that the majority of people granted compassionate leave did not get tested prior to leaving isolation is a national disgrace and completely unacceptable.

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National Party leader Todd Muller says the recent failings show the system is broken. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

In a statement last night, the Ministry of Health said only four people who left managed isolation on compassionate grounds under alert level 1 were tested before getting out.

Between the move to level 1 on 9 June and 16 June, when compassionate exemptions were stopped, 55 people were granted the exemption.

Of those, 51 were not tested before leaving managed isolation.

The ministry said it was following up with those people and 35 had since returned negative tests.

Seven would not be tested, either for health reasons, they were a child, or had left the country. Four people were awaiting test results and officials were still working to test the remaining four.

"These people left managed isolation either to self-isolate in the community, or to make visits into the community," the ministry statement said.

Muller told Morning Report that everyday more examples were emerging of failings that pointed to a government that had "lost control of the border management system".

"It's running around saying that bringing in the army should give us all confidence, but we need to look at what was expected of them. It made sense to have the capacity for compassionate leave, but that was predicated on a test upon arrival and just before you could go to the funeral.

"That is a cast iron requirement of the process and it hasn't been happening and the ministers haven't been assuring themselves of the expected oversight as to who has been tested and where the gaps are."

Prior to 9 June, there was no requirement for those leaving facilities to be tested as everyone had to undergo 14 days of mandatory isolation.

Since the country moved to alert level 1 on 9 June, the Director-General of Health's instructions have been for testing to take place on day three and day 12 of isolation. But Dr Ashley Bloomfield yesterday said that due to a breakdown in communication that had not happened.

It was accumulative insight into a system that was broken, Muller said.

"The minister of health ultimately has been accountable, must step down. The prime minister seems simply incapable of showing leadership that New Zealand would expect at a time like this.

"If the net effect of all of those lapse protocols is that we avoid community transmission, we are indeed a lucky country."

He said New Zealanders expected the protocols they were told about would be followed.

"When we moved into level 1, the prime minister said there would be testing in managed quarantine and isolation from that period and that did not happen. And now we ask the question, how many have been tested and how many haven't been tested ... they don't have the answer."

Dr Ashley Bloomfield yesterday was unable to provide a figure on how many of the 2159 people who had left managed isolation between 9 and 16 June had not been tested before departing the facilities.

Risk from those leaving quarantine 'very low'

University of Auckland microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles said the chance of people leaving isolation without being tested and causing community infection was "very low".

"The isolation is our best defence, right. It's not the testing, it's about the isolation ... in the best case scenario, we'd have no-one leaving isolation.

"But there was obviously massive public and political pressure to allow these compassionate exemptions."

Deciding to allow people out would have taken into account the risks, Dr Wiles said.

If they had had symptoms they would not have been allowed out, she said. They would have been given advice to wear masks if coming into contact with others in case they were pre-symptomatic.

"But we have to also remember that [these] people were going to other isolation... If people had gone on to develop symptoms, then the testing and the isolation of those around them would have would have kicked in as well.

"So we're very unlikely to see anything happen from these and if we do, it'll be very, very minor. And it's also why we are still being asked, you know, to keep contact details of where we've been, who we're seeing, and to make sure that if we have any symptoms to go and get tested."

Claims of homeless person staying in isolation hotel

Muller is also backing his party's health spokesperson, Michael Woodhouse, who last week claimed that a homeless man had managed to bluff his way into a five-star hotel for a 14-day stay.

Woodhouse stuck by his claim yesterday, despite the minister in charge of overseeing the facilities and Dr Bloomfield both saying there was no evidence to suggest that had happened.

Michael Woodhouse

Michael Woodhouse. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

"I was careful to say that they were unverified, but the source was reliable and that it warranted investigation, the absence of any evidence does not mean it did not occur and the ministry has a bit of a track record of missing things," he said.

Muller told Morning Report he believed Woodhouse and did not have confidence in the government.

"The idea that they've spent the last day pouring over CCTV cameras, their job should be to try and find the [2159] people and work out whether they'd been tested or not ... that's where the resources need to go."

However, in yesterday's Covid-19 briefing, Dr Bloomfield said: "As far as we can tell, this cannot be verified and may well be an urban myth."

Bloomfield said that if anyone did have information he would like to hear from them.

Wiles on border controls and public reaction

Asked if the border controls were stringent enough, Dr Wiles said: "The really important thing that is happening at the moment is ... the immediate moving of people with symptoms to another facility, which is much stricter.

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Dr Siouxsie Wiles. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

"We have to remember that while people are infectious for the few days before they have symptoms, and there, there is no really good evidence that people who never developed symptoms are infectious.

"And this is really, really important because people without symptoms are put somewhere else. And it's the testing of people at ... day three and day 12 that will pick up people who have the virus that don't have symptoms, right. But if these people never go on to develop symptoms, they're not really that big of a risk. There's very little evidence that they transmit [Covid-19]."

What was important was making sure that the mingling of people from different flights was minimised.

She said the border measures were the reality while the pandemic raged overseas.

"I think we need to get a little bit away from the hysteria and a little bit partly because I worry that people are going to feel stigmatised, and when people feel stigmatised and concerned, they're not going to come forward if they have symptoms.

"What we have now in place is a much better contact tracing system, we have much better awareness of symptoms. And so if there are any gaps that come through, because maybe somebody hasn't reported that they have symptoms, and there ends up being some some transmission, we have everything in place to stop that from turning into something uncontrolled, but it requires all of us to keep up with our where have we been, who have we been with. And if we have any symptoms, to go and get tested."

The reaction to the new cases was disappointing, she said.

"I and others have said for a long time, you know, we will see cases, it doesn't mean that we failed, because New Zealanders are coming home and they're coming home from places with the virus, we should expect to see that."

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