A show of strength after quarantine blunder

The Government tried to put on a show of strength after weaknesses at the border were badly exposed this week

Housing Minister Megan Woods and Air Commodore Darryn 'Digby' Webb took the reins of the country's managed isolation and quarantine facilities on Friday after the country nearly lost its Covid-free status this week. 

At a one-hour press conference, Woods started the Government's quest to win back Kiwis' confidence that its enforcement of border quarantine was still stringent.

Where once the facilities themselves were managed by Webb and the health aspects by the Ministry of Health, the Air Commodore would now oversee both. 

"We have not been 100 percent successful in our management of these facilities," Webb said. 

The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment will take over the running of managed isolation facilities by October 1. The work to transition to that arrangement will be led by MBIE Deputy Chief Executive Megan Main, but the new head of isolation facilities - and whether Webb would remain in place after this transition - will be decided at a later date.

"MBIE is a key government agency that has the scale and scope to deal with complex issues and work across other government agencies," Woods said.

Neither Webb nor Woods could provide many answers on why protocols had fallen down and standards had slipped. A review into managed isolation and quarantine processes led by Royal NZ Navy Commodore Tony Miller may shed light on that.

"We fully accept that the expectations that we all had about how the managed isolation processes worked have not been working."

It will report back to Webb next week and Miller will be supported in his investigation by Department of Corrections Deputy National Commissioner Andy Milne and NZ Police Senior Sergeant Catherine Gibson.

"I understand that every New Zealander will be concerned by what has eventuated and I am committed to ensuring we understand what has happened," Webb said.

However, it was clear the concerns went well beyond two women who drove from Auckland to Wellington and included other breaches of rules and testing protocols.

An extra 36 Defence Force staff would be added to quarantine hotels - double the current presence - allowing them to better enforce social distancing.

"There have been issues with the rigour around approvals relating to testing as well as numerous allegations of those in managed isolation mixing together," Woods said.

"This is unacceptable and we have acted with the agency to fix the problems that we have seen emerge.

"We fully accept that the expectations that we all had about how the managed isolation processes worked have not been working."

Webb was expected to bring his Airforce-inspired logistical nous to the table and a military rigour with adhering to processes, protocols and - presumably - checklists.

Woods has earned a reputation as the Government's go-to figure at times of public failure like KiwiBuild. Although she maintained it was simply a natural alignment with her housing portfolio and responsibilities as an MBIE Minister.

Expanded quarantine capacity unlikely anytime soon

The chances of quarantine supply expanding to allow for things like international education or even returning temporary visa holders with work rights withered as the press conference rolled on. 

"This isn't a case of flicking a switch and just being able to bring thousands of people across the border weekly," Woods said.

"This is logistically difficult. It is resource-heavy. We're seeing 20,000 people brought in to date. We've got a staff of 626 people." 

The long timeframes likely for any re-opening of the border were mentioned by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Radio Tarana this week where she signalled the expansion of quarantine facilities would take "some time" to reach the level where work visa holders stranded outside the country could be let back in. 

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway wouldn't answer whether work visa holders stranded overseas could be locked out of the country for the rest of the year. 

However, he did say any estimate of the timeframes involved would be "unwise given the many dynamic issues that influence this such as flights, quarantine facilities and vaccine production."

"The careful and cautious expansion of managed isolation and quarantine facilities will take time, as will the resumption of flights into New Zealand and around the world."

Quarantine facilities required a heavy government footprint of roughly 15 people at each facility on top of hotel staff. A rough staffing breakdown was reported by Newsroom on Thursday and included three aviation security (AVSEC) interviewers, three AVSEC assurance team members, two Ministry of Health representatives, four nurses, and a counsellor.

All of that came at a high price: $81m to provide managed isolation facilities for 21,500 people (close to $4000 per person). 

Woods said the budget for quarantine was not bottomless, but the Government was exploring options that would see quarantined individuals pay for part of it.

A pilot of a user pays managed isolation facility was completed in June at the SO Hotel and concluded that more funding - either from the users themselves or the Government - could overcome quarantine supply issues like the problem of providing exercise options for people staying in those hotels.

The report on the user pays pilot suggested managed isolation facilities had faced problems with getting New Zealanders from overseas to comply with rules at those facilities, but suggested foreign nationals were more easily quarantined because they faced harsher penalties if they didn't adhere to them.

Webb's presence suggested there would be a much bigger emphasis placed on the enforcement of quarantining rules, and Woods was quick to point out that the responsibility for keeping the country safe from Covid-19 didn't just rest with the Government. 

"Incoming people should act like they have Covid-19 ... they owe it to all of us who did the hard mahi through those weeks of Level 3 and Level 4."

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