New Zealand will hand management of COVID-19 quarantine and isolation to its military after “system failures” allowed two returned Kiwis to potentially spread the virus through the country.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the errors that led to the two women being allowed to leave mandatory quarantine without proper testing “cannot be repeated”.
The coronavirus infections reported on Tuesday in two women who returned to New Zealand from Britain to see a dying parent were the first in the country in 24 days.
On June 8, a jubilant Ms Ardern declared the country virus free and lifted all virus control measures, except border restrictions.
The expats arrived in Auckland on June 7, applied for and received a compassionate exemption from quarantine on June 12. They drove the 650 kilometres to Wellington in a private car on June 13.
One woman had mild symptoms, but they were dismissed and attributed to a pre-existing condition.
Neither woman was tested on day three or day 12 of quarantine, as required by NZ law.
“There is no room for error – even if it is human error. It is totally unacceptable that procedures we were advised were in place were
not,” Ms Ardern said.
“Our job is now to fix that and that is exactly what I intend to do.”
On Wednesday she said the two women had done nothing wrong.
“It is not their fault that the system failed and, from all accounts, they have followed the health protocols required of them and have not come into contact with anyone since leaving managed isolation, other than their parent, as per their release plan,” she said.
“This doesn’t change New Zealand’s COVID status. Our definition always assumed there would be cases at the border.”
The country’s director-general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, has taken responsibility for the breach,.
“These individuals should have been tested prior to leaving the managed isolation facility,” he said.
“I am taking responsibility for ensuring this does not happen again.”
Some 320 close contacts of the women have been identified. It is not clear if they are all in New Zealand or some are in Britain – where the expats live – or Doha and Brisbane, where they had connecting flights.
No new coronavirus cases were reported in NZ on Wednesday.
Ms Ardern said she would appoint New Zealand’s assistant chief of defence, Air Commodore Digby Webb, to oversee the country’s quarantine and managed COVID-19 isolation facilities, including how people were allowed to leave them.
Air Commodore Webb will also audit coronavirus quarantine systems and processes and make any changes deemed necessary.
NZ will also suspend compassionate exemptions to quarantine until “we can guarantee a disciplined and rigorous system at the border that ministers have confidence in”.
“I know this will be upsetting to some New Zealanders seeking to return home, to visit dying relatives and loved ones,” Ms Ardern said.
“However, the risk to our collective efforts to eliminate COVID are simply too great. I cannot allow the gains we have all made to be squandered by processes not being upheld.”
Ms Ardern said this week’s latest infections did not change the country’s COVID status.