Is it time for more strict quarantining?

Self isolation seems to have prevented community transmission of Covid-19 so far, but is the regime too loose? David Williams reports

Authorities say mandatory self isolation for people arriving from overseas is working well to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

But yesterday, when confirmed cases of Covid-19 jumped from 12 to 20, questions were being asked – including by Queenstown’s Mayor – about how the system can be effective without better monitoring and harsher penalties for rule-breakers.

A 14-day quarantine for international arrivals, except those from the Pacific, was announced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Saturday. On Monday afternoon, after media found travellers who said they wouldn’t self isolate, Ardern said there would be “zero tolerance” for such behaviour. “If you come here and have no intention of following our requirements to self isolate, frankly, you are not welcome and you should leave before you are deported.”

The public, including accommodation providers, are being encouraged to pass quarantine breakers’ details, including licence plate numbers, to authorities.

The next day, the immigration department said two people who arrived from South East Asia on Monday and failed to self isolate, had been found in Christchurch and were being quarantined and, after the 14 days, if they don’t leave voluntarily they’ll face deportation.

Police did spot checks on some travellers in self isolation at the request of the Ministry of Health. Forty-one were contacted on Tuesday, with a further three, who couldn’t be found, to be followed up yesterday. There was a “high level of compliance”, a statement said.

In a statement to Newsroom, Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway says: “I think these actions show that we are serious about protecting New Zealanders and saving lives by reducing the spread of Corona virus.”

In Australia, visitors who break quarantine measures face jail or a fine of up to $50,000, depending on which state they’re in.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, thousands of people issued “stay-home notices” have to prove their location through photos or their phone’s GPS function. Failure to comply can be fined up to $S10,000 and/or jailed for up to six months.

“I just can’t see how it can work, to be honest.” – Jim Boult

The first Covid-19 case for tourism mecca Queenstown was confirmed on Sunday, sending shockwaves through a town already reeling from the virus-related travel restrictions.

On Tuesday night, Queenstown Mayor Jim Boult asked the local district health board if tougher conditions could be imposed on those undertaking self isolation.

He tells Newsroom: “I just can’t see how it can work, to be honest.”

Boult said he had talked to a hotelier about an interaction with a couple of groups who had just arrived in the country. “Asked about self isolation, they said, ‘Oh, we’re self isolating here for three days then self isolating somewhere else for two days, and then we’re going somewhere else’.

“Their idea of self isolation is far different than the government’s expectations. I think we’ve got to improve the way we control that, the way we police it.

“The other side of that coin is if a couple of people turn up here in a second-hand Subaru station wagon, how the hell do we know about it and how on earth do you ever control that?”

Nik Kiddle, who owns luxury hotel Villa Del Lago, believes the requirements are too loose to prevent the virus’s spread. “The self isolation requirements do appear to have some holes in them.”

Accommodation providers respect the 14-day quarantine obligation, Kiddle says, and ask their guests to do the same. “It’s going to be up to the travelling individuals themselves to determine how much they’re going to abide by those requirements but we can do our bit in encouraging them to listen to the expectations.”

The Immigration department’s website says: “All passengers arriving in New Zealand are being assessed and screened before they are allowed to enter the country.”

But Auckland woman Maree Gladding, who returned to the country through Auckland Airport, calls the regime a joke. There was no mention on the plane of coronavirus or self isolation, she said, and no information was handed out at the airport. The only requirement was filling out a card with a contact address.

Gladding told the NZ Herald: “I was disappointed because there was no help desk, there was no 'what does self-isolation actually mean?' There was no 'how are you getting home?'”

Serious look at Australia’s controls

Asked at a media briefing yesterday if the Ministry of Health would be advising the Government to adopt stricter border controls, Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said: “Our border controls are already quite strict.”

Yesterday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned Australians they shouldn’t travel overseas. Bloomfield said: “I know that the government will be looking very seriously what Australia is doing. That’s a live issue. We haven’t provided further advice at the moment, but I’m sure it will be a discussion.”

The eight new Covid-19 cases revealed yesterday – after a huge increase in testing, with 620 tests processed around the country – were all overseas travel related. People who arrived from overseas before the Monday 1am deadline for mandatory quarantine have now been urged to voluntarily self isolate.

“The clear link to recent overseas travel for these eight cases reinforces the border restrictions that were implemented this last weekend,” Bloomfield said, adding that self isolation was fundamental to preventing community transmission of the virus.

All the new cases he’d been briefed on were already in self isolation, he said yesterday. “People understand the expectation. Not only were they in self isolation … but they were aware of the symptoms and did the right thing when they became symptomatic.”

Despite the jump in cases, Bloomfield said the risk of a widespread outbreak appeared to be low. But he added: “We’re assessing it on a regular basis.

“Our border restrictions are intended to keep that risk low. That is something we are very, very alert for and that is why we want to do sufficient testing so that we can detect any evidence of community outbreak.”

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