Covid-19

Returning Kiwis raise virus concerns

As up to 80,000 New Zealanders prepare to return to a country under lockdown, experts suggest they should be quarantined away from their homes and families, Marc Daalder reports

Professor Michael Baker, who led the ultimately successful push for an early lockdown in New Zealand, now wants to see returning Kiwis quarantined somewhere safe. On Tuesday afternoon, the Prime Minister seemed to endorse the idea, at least in theory.

"With self-isolation, very few of the 10,000-plus people who self-isolated after travel are known to have got sick," the University of Otago academic told Newsroom. "To date, it's been quite a low-risk group, but this group coming back now will be at higher risk of incubating disease. Also some of them will have very mild symptoms so they will actually be infectious and really won't know it."

There's a risk that these returnees won't follow the strict self-isolation rules or that, even if they do their best, they could infect family members who would then need more treatment. The solution, Baker says, is a stricter quarantine - perhaps modelled on the quarantine of Wuhan evacuees at Whangpāraoa naval base.

"Now we've got a bunch of people coming back to New Zealand who do have a higher risk of incubating disease than most travellers in the past," Baker said. "I do think we need to consider a higher level of quarantine for them and that would be the more supervised form of quarantine where you know where they are, you know they're not going to be mixing with other people and they're going to sit out the quarantine period."

Government considering a quarantine

During her Tuesday afternoon press conference, Jacinda Ardern echoed a similar worry.

"We are very concerned that again the border continues to be the issue that we have to make sure we are placing resource and energy into. It is New Zealanders coming home who do pose risk - and I say that with no judgment, it is just a fact of life for the entire globe right now. Our citizens coming home are the ones carrying Covid-19."

Ardern said that the Government was looking at all of its options. "Now we need to care for [returnees], but we also need to care for everyone else that they may potentially otherwise come in contact with and reduce that chance as much as possible," she said.

"I can't tell you immediately whether that would include, for instance, managing their transportation or keeping them in separate quarantine, but we are exploring all of those options."

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield also acknowledged that the Government was investigating the possibility of quarantines for returnees.

"We're also looking at options for quarantine and whether that would be for people coming into the country and/or others in the country where we weren’t confident about their compliance with self-isolation expectations," he said.

"We've got the experience at Whangapāraoa as a good starting point, so we know how to set it up quickly, how to make it work and how to look after people."

Empty hotels an option

There are also alternative options for a quarantine system, Baker said.

"Given that the tourist industry [is collapsing] - I mean this is just speculation - but I imagine there's more hotel rooms and so on that can potentially be made available."

Dean Humphries, the national director of hotels at Collier International, also said that hotels could be used as quarantine sites.

"There is likely to be demand for short-term accommodation among people who have recently returned from overseas, live with extended family, live in flats with multiple people, the elderly, people with compromised immune systems, or people who simply want to reduce anxiety or feel safe. Hotels could be a perfect solution for these groups, as they are able to isolate rooms or floors and provide meals, cleaning and other service," he said.

On Tuesday afternoon, Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters warned New Zealanders overseas to stay where they were, less than a week after urging them to come home before they lost the chance to do so.

"We are reaching a point where the best option for most New Zealanders offshore is to shelter in place, by preparing to safely stay where they are," Peters said.

Last week, Peters had warned Kiwis that "Borders are closing. You may not be able to return to New Zealand when you had planned to. You should therefore organise to come home now."

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