Covid-19: Experts call for incoming Govt to look at new ways to protect border

Jamie Morton, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Wed, 28 Oct 2020, 8:17PM
(Photo / Supplied)
(Photo / Supplied)

Covid-19: Experts call for incoming Govt to look at new ways to protect border

Jamie Morton, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Wed, 28 Oct 2020, 8:17PM

Experts have floated a raft of improvements - including suspending travel from mass-infected countries - they say would beef up New Zealand's borders against Covid-19.

In a new blog post, a team of Otago University public health argued it was now an "excellent time" for the newly-elected Government to carry out a systematic review to limit New Zealand's threat of more outbreaks.

"The persisting occurrence of cross-border incursions of the pandemic virus - five since August 1, including a large outbreak in Auckland - highlights the need for such a review," wrote doctors Jennifer Summers and Amanda Kvalsvig, and professors Nick Wilson and Michael Baker.

While they acknowledged New Zealand had been a top performer at stamping out the virus, the experts offered a list of potential changes for the Government to consider.

One was banning all travellers from countries with high levels of uncontrolled spread - such as the US, UK, India - until the prevalence of infection in travellers was low.

"This was the approach taken by New Zealand in February 2020 – albeit not applying to New Zealand passport holders," they said.

"The simplest action legally might be to prohibit, where possible, any flights that originated from these countries."

Alternatively, they suggested legislation could empower the Government to constrain the rights of Kiwi passport holders to return home in pandemic circumstances.

It could also consider pre-flight quarantine and testing - through a PCR or rapid antigen test - for travellers from hard-hit countries.

Such a measure was already being used in nations including Cyprus, Bermuda, Hong Kong and Italy - and the Ministry of Health has been looking at whether New Zealand should adopt the policy.

The experts suggested a pilot programme could target travel from one "high-risk" country, and then be expanded.

While travellers on flights to New Zealand are already required to mask up, they said rules could be finessed further, such as not talking when masks have to be taken off for eating and drinking.

While earlier work has shown the risk of the virus being brought in by international air crew was low, they also saw need for an updated review of it.

A separate review could be carried out into what happened when they landed: especially around bus trips and domestic flights to managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities outside of Auckland.

They listed off potential tweaks to MIQ facilities themselves, among them, considering electronic bracelets and whether a centralised hub, such as at RNZAF Base Ohakea, could take the place of hotels.

Authorities also needed to re-evaluate how the virus spread within MIQ facilities, and look at whether the 14-day isolation time could be slashed for those willing to quarantine at home - provided they could be digitally tracked.

Taiwan, for instance, was able to closely monitor individuals quarantined at home through personal phones or government-provided phones.

"Taiwanese authorities also have the mandate to conduct in-home checks on quarantined individuals," they said.

"Those found breaching the home quarantine rules are placed into a quarantine institution and face substantial fines."

Elsewhere, they pointed to a different threat from international shipping crews, who were currently allowed to fly into New Zealand and transit directly to ships, without going through the usual quarantine and testing required of usual travellers.

That risk came under the spotlight this month with the infection of a marine engineer who was working on a cargo ship the same day a group of recently-arrived seamen stepped aboard.

They said a greater focus was also needed on the possibility of infected cargo - one of three potential explanations for Auckland's August outbreak.

When it came to detecting the virus faster at borders, the experts put forward a range of options.

Those were rolling out rapid antigen tests when they became effective enough and testing border workers more frequently - even daily - while requiring weekly health reports from their close contacts.

There could even be scope for using smart tech like the Kiwi-designed elarm app to pick up symptoms early, or training detector dogs, they said.

Out in the community, health authorities could widen surveillance of respiratory disease outside of the flu season, and begin widespread testing of wastewater stations for traces of the virus.

"New Zealand has made progress in this domain with work by ESR, but it still seems relatively slow compared to work in Australia where this surveillance system is already in use."

To boost control of future outbreaks, they said New Zealand could catch up to other countries like Singapore and bring in new tech to help contact tracing, such as the long-awaited, Bluetooth-enabled CovidCard.

Our alert level settings could also be overhauled.

"For example, at a new 'alert level 1.5' there could be mandatory mask use in all indoor public settings," they said.

"Settings with a relatively high transmission risk - bars, night clubs, gyms, churches - could have restrictions in terms of numbers of people indoors, ventilation requirements, and various opening hours."

Finally, they called for authorities to issue reports of breaches at MIQ facilities much quicker, given journalists were having to use Official Information Act requests to obtain them.

"In summary, there appear to be many ways by which further risk reduction of Covid-19 outbreaks in NZ would seem possible," they concluded.

"Given the potential costs of failure - eg, the probably high wellbeing and economic costs of the recent August Auckland outbreak - it would seem prudent for the NZ Government to thoroughly evaluate all these options.”