Covid-19

Govt locks down travel amid Covid-19 fears

Ministries and District Health Boards across the country are putting in place piecemeal restrictions on staff travel as the global Covid-19 situation worsens, Marc Daalder reports

A wave of ministries and DHBs are scrambling to put in place travel policies that have been vetted by health experts and approved by staff and unions as the global Covid-19 crisis worsens. While some say they are sticking to advice from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, others have struck out on their own with unique policies.

A Ministry of Health spokesperson told Newsroom that "Ministry of Health employees have been advised that any non-essential international business travel to or through Covid-19 countries of concern should be postponed or cancelled". People in 111 countries and regions have contracted the virus, according to John Hopkins University data.

The State Services Commission said it hadn't given any advice to agencies regarding travel restrictions.

Auckland DHB told staff in a memo on Thursday that it would be restricting overseas travel. Now, Canterbury has joined Auckland, Counties Manukau and Waitematā in slapping a ban on "non-essential international [business] travel" and recommending that staff "consider carefully any private international travel".

DHBs cobble together policies

Meanwhile, health boards from Whanganui to Tairāwhiti to Nelson-Marlborough have told Newsroom that they are rapidly finalising plans for their own travel restrictions.

"Whanganui DHB is working with staff and unions on a plan to restrict overseas business travel. At this stage we are not restricting domestic travel," a spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for the Nelson-Marlborough DHB told Newsroom that the health board was "still finalising our advice/directives for staff".

A Tairāwhiti DHB spokesperson said that it would put "travel guidelines/restrictions in place for Hauora Tairāwhiti staff" by the end of the day.

Meanwhile, Taranaki DHB won't have new restrictions in place until next week, a spokesperson said.

But Bay of Plenty DHB responded to Newsroom's inquiries with a settled policy on Tuesday.

"BOPDHB, in line with other District Health Boards, has taken the decision to put a hold on all non-essential, international work-related travel for the foreseeable future," incident controller Sandra Fielding said.

"We have also advised staff who are planning on travelling overseas for personal reasons to review MOH travel recommendations both prior to departure and on return from overseas. This includes asking staff who have been to high risk countries to self-isolate and those staff who have travelled to lower risk areas being assigned to non-patient contact roles or stood down until they have been back in NZ for 14 days."

A serious Covid-19 outbreak in New Zealand would require an influx of resources and DHBs are loath to expose staff to unnecessary danger. Already, 43 North Shore Hospital staff members are in self-isolation after coming in contact with a probable Covid-19 case.

Ministries taking piecemeal approach

Several ministries have coalesced behind advice from MFAT and the Ministry of Health.

"We are adhering to all travel advisories received by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs through their SafeTravel portal," Zoe Griffiths, the Ministry of Education's deputy secretary for business enablement and support, said. The Ministry of Justice and the Department of Corrections have taken similar positions.

Others have ventured out on their own.

The Ministry for the Environment has taken the strongest stance of agencies that responded to Newsroom's inquiries on Tuesday, restricting international and domestic travel. "The Ministry for the Environment is in a no non-essential travel period for both international and domestic travel - this is an interim travel policy in place during Covid-19 to guide management through the travel consideration process," a spokesperson said. 

"Decisions on whether and when to undertake travel is made based on a combination of the business criticality, urgency, destination location of the event and risk to traveller’s health."

MFAT itself says that it has not locked down travel but is operating off a risks-based framework for making travel decisions. "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has not ceased international travel for its staff.  MFAT has, however, set in place a process to assess the risks associated with travel, given the fast-evolving situation of Covid-19," a spokesperson said.

The Ministry of Transport has not put travel restrictions in place either. "The Ministry of Transport doesn’t currently have restrictions on travel by staff in response to Covid-19 but we are monitoring this situation daily. We are currently discussing with our staff whether business travel is essential, and we’re following advice from the Ministry of Health and border agencies as the situation evolves," Suzanne Williams, Transport's human resources manager, told Newsroom.

A Ministry of Social Development spokesperson told Newsroom that the department has "not put any travel restrictions for staff in place to date".

The Department of Internal Affairs has gone a step further than most, mandating that international travel already booked or planned needs a sign-off from the department's CE. "The Department of Internal Affairs has introduced a temporary travel policy to reduce the likelihood of transmission of Covid-19 by our people and into New Zealand," a spokesperson said.

"No international travel is to be undertaken to countries categorised as ‘Do Not Travel’ or ‘Avoid Non-Essential Travel’ on MFAT’s SafeTravel website. Any international travel already booked or planned now needs to be approved by the Chief Executive, and it is likely only business-critical travel will be approved."

The Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment has suspended all non-essential international travel, a spokesperson said.

The Department of Conservation is considering international travel on a case-by-case basis, as are the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development.

An Oranga Tamariki spokesperson told Newsroom that the agency has suspended non-essential international travel and that travel deemed essential will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Covid-19 is transmitted like the flu. The Ministry of Health recommends that all New Zealanders wash their hands frequently and refrain from touching their face in order to protect themselves and others. Call Healthline on 0800 358 5453 if you have any symptoms and have been to any countries or territories of concern or have been in close contact with someone confirmed with Covid-19.

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