Covid-19

Police to be stationed at isolation facilities

After a 90-minute escape by a Covid-19 positive patient from a central Auckland isolation hotel, the Government is furthering ramping up its security measures

Police will have a full-time presence at all managed isolation and quarantine facilities after two escapes in a week - including a new arrival who tested positive for Covid-19.

The minister in charge of managed isolation facilities, Megan Woods, has also indicated that the Government will further review its operating procedures and the lines of communication for such breaches as a result of the high-profile incident.

On Wednesday, it was revealed that a 32-year-old man in isolation, who was awaiting a Covid-19 test result that later came back positive, strolled out the Stamford Plaza Hotel into the middle of Auckland to visit a supermarket, while taking a smoking break.

Speaking to media on Thursday afternoon, Woods announced police would have a 24/7 presence at all facilities for new arrivals, while there would also be a lead security guard at each location to ensure the rules were followed.

Woods was scathing about the individual's decision to leave isolation, saying: "Anyone who chooses to break out of these facilities is committing a reckless act of selfishness and we will come down on them with the full weight of the law.

"They don't deserve to join the team of five million."

Air Commodore Darryn Webb said there would not be a smoking ban as a result of the breach, but smoking areas would be monitored around the clock, and closed if necessary during shift breaks and gaps in coverage.

All facilities which needed an enclosure had had six-foot high fencing installed, Webb said.

Police had visited the Countdown supermarket in question on Tuesday night after the man had returned to the isolation facility, with a decision taken to wipe down and clean the surfaces he had been in contact with.

However, Webb and Woods struggled to explain what involvement, if any, the Ministry of Health had had in providing public health advice to the supermarket, with the minister saying the Government would look to further tighten its operating procedures for such events.

Changes signalled

Earlier on Thursday morning, Woods told RNZ's Morning Report she would announce today whether there would be further police involvement in managing returnees.

"Only one group of people have the power to detain, and that's the police," Woods said.

She said in this case security believed the escapee to be one of the contractors working on the fence. There could be changes such as not allowing people to use outdoor areas while there are works happening.

"One of the immediate reactions the team took yesterday was to review those policies, particularly around smoking areas.

"It's probably not appropriate to have someone in a smoking area when there's contractors on site and where it's not clear who's who. We're reviewing all of those things and we'll have more to say on that later today."

On suggestions people may have to book managed isolation facilities before they flew into New Zealand, Woods said it would be a "sensible way" to manage quarantine.

But in order for it to work there would need to be a system in which bookings and flights were coordinated, she said

Officials are still piecing together CCTV footage to work out the man's movements between a Countdown supermarket and the hotel.

Woods said the man stood outside a store to tap into free Wi-Fi and made a 22-minute long phone call.

"Security officers don't have powers of arrest or anything similar to that, so they may be limited in what action they can actually take."

Public health expert Professor Michael Baker said the escapees' behaviour was "egregious" but we should still look for systematic improvement to reduce the chance of breaches happening.

"In this instance, we've got the question of whether people coming into these facilities should be confined to their rooms until they've had their first test and it's negative."

Baker said that could be implemented now, with special provisions for people addicted to nicotine or other substances, for instance nicotine replacement therapy.

"Many smokers, if they're already planning a long flight, take this approach - and that would be one way of managing this risk."

Meanwhile, there are calls for clearer instructions over the role security guards should play at managed isolation facilities.

The New Zealand Security Association says members have received mixed messages and that security companies should be involved in planning security measures.

Chief executive Gary Morrison said security guards were under a lot of pressure - and on low pay.

"I'm aware from talking to some of our members that when they've gone into those roles, there hasn't been clear communication as to what needs to be done.

"Beyond that, you've got the most recent situation where security officers have limited powers ... security officers don't have powers of arrest or anything similar to that, so they may be limited in what action they can actually take."

Morrison said it might be necessary to have more police involvement in managing returnees.

Security officers were on relatively low pay for the risk they were taking in these roles.

"Security officers are essential workers. They have performed right through that whole period ... it's very easy to criticise, but in the majority they do a fantastic job."

This story first appeared on rnz.co.nz and is republished with permission

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