health & science

Coronavirus travel ban widens, first NZ case confirmed

New Zealand has widened, not narrowed, its coronavirus travel ban despite universities pleading for an exemption, while the country now has its first confirmed case

The Government has extended its coronavirus-related travel restrictions to include Iran, while resisting calls from universities to provide an exemption for international students from China.

Health officials will also monitor an increased number of international flights, with officials confirming the first verified case of coronavirus in New Zealand.

In a media statement the Ministry of Health said the first case was in a person in their 60s who had recently returned from Iran.

The person was being treated in Auckland City Hospital, within a negative pressure room to prevent the spread of disease.

Public health officials had asked others in the person's household to isolate themselves as a precautionary measure, and were tracing other close contacts - including passengers on the person's flight from Iran, via Bali - to ensure protection measures were in place.

The ministry said it was confident the chances of a community outbreak in New Zealand remained low, with strong public awareness of the coronavirus threat and the official response to managing cases and contact.

Govt stands by China ban

The decision to implement and maintain a ban on travel from China since early February has attracted the ire of universities, who fear financial damage from a drop in international student numbers.

The University of Auckland this week announced a hiring freeze which was directly related to the travel ban, while it and other institutions have called on New Zealand to provide an exemption to allow students to complete their courses.

However, at a press conference on Friday afternoon Health Minister David Clark said the Government had decided against allowing any exemptions, and had in fact expanded the ban to include Iran.

“The situation in Iran is obviously concerning. There is ongoing spread of the disease there, and a large degree of uncertainty about the scale of the outbreak and the ability to contain it.”

New Zealand citizens and permanent residents would still be allowed to return home but required to self-isolate for 14 days, while many airlines had already begun to cancel their flights from Iran.

The restrictions came into force immediately and would be reviewed every 48 hours, as with the China restrictions.

“Allowing thousands of students into the country from China, and guaranteeing they were safely in self-isolation, would have been incredibly difficult to implement and was not a risk the Government was prepared to take on New Zealanders’ behalf.”

Defending the decision not to provide an exemption for overseas students, Clark said the Government’s priority was protecting New Zealanders and advice from health officials and others was to maintain the current ban in its entirety.

“Allowing thousands of students into the country from China, and guaranteeing they were safely in self-isolation, would have been incredibly difficult to implement and was not a risk the Government was prepared to take on New Zealanders’ behalf.”

Acting Education Minister Tracey Martin said the Government would continue to provide practical support to education providers, including greater flexibility for entry dates on offshore Chinese student visas.

Clark said the Government would also increase the number of flights being monitored by health officials, covering all direct international flights from Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand.

The officials would be available to provide advice and check passengers, particularly those who were unwell or displaying symptoms of concern.

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