Ashley Bloomfield apologises for blunder but says he won't quit

Newstalk ZB,
Publish Date
Thu, 18 Jun 2020, 9:13am
Photo / File
Photo / File

Ashley Bloomfield apologises for blunder but says he won't quit

Newstalk ZB,
Publish Date
Thu, 18 Jun 2020, 9:13am

New Zealand's health boss admits he has no idea how many people have left isolation in hotels without being tested for Covid - but insists he does not need to quit following revelations of various bungles.

"I haven't quit. I am not planning to quit. I have worked hard to keep New Zealanders safe," director-general of health Ashley Bloomfield told Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking today.

"It's clear ... we didn't meet expectations and I'm sorry about that."

Bloomfield admitted he did not know how many people had left quarantine hotels without being tested before Tuesday.

The mainstay of protecting the border was 14 days of isolation, he said. "We have had managed isolation for several months ... we added the testing at level 1. It didn't get implemented as well as it could have."

Bloomfield's comments came as two women - who travelled here from the UK - were allowed out of isolation at an Auckland hotel early and without being tested. They made a road-trip to Wellington and took Covid tests there that turned out positive.

Despite initially saying they had not contacted anyone on their road-trip, it was revealed yesterday that they came into contact with at least two friends who helped them after they became lost on the Auckland motorway.

An Auckland gym member is believed to be one of the friends who "kissed and hugged" the women after helping them.

According to a Facebook post by Felicia Alkin, the owner of Lioness Gym, the unnamed member was in contact with the two women on Saturday and did not know they were positive until Tuesday afternoon.

National MP Michael Woodhouse earlier revealed that the pair, who travelled from London to New Zealand and arrived on June 10, borrowed a car but had to meet friends for help with directions after getting lost.

On Hosking's show today, Bloomfield repeated that he was "sorry" for the slip-up with the border issues that allowed the two women with Covid to roam free.

"We had processes in place ... clearly there was a gap in implementation. That gap is now closed," he said.

Asked if the women had lied, he said they did not. He said they were distraught after losing a parent and were on their way to their only remaining parent.

Public health officials often did follow-up interviews which commonly elicited further information, he said.

The women had got lost, headed north on the motorway instead of south and asked for help from a friend.

The public health unit had found that out on Tuesday and did not let the MOH know until Wednesday as it thought it was not important information.

The test results for the women's friend were expected back today, Bloomfield said.

They initially didn't think the interaction with their friend was of note.

Bloomfield said there were questions about whether testing was voluntary; he said since Tuesday it had essentially been made mandatory - nobody would be considered low-risk unless they had a negative test.

"Since Tuesday everyone is tested before they go."

Former police commissioner Mike Bush and Air Commodore Digby Webb were chasing up every complaint or report about rule breaches such as mixing and mingling among isolated or quarantined hotel guests.

Any reports of mixing and mingling would be investigated by police, he said.

Testing of people leaving managed isolation had only been implemented in level 1 - there had been several months of people in managed isolation for 14 days in hotels without being tested before that.

Last night the Ministry of Health confirmed the two women had "limited physical contact with the two friends for approximately five minutes".

The ministry said the two who helped had since been tested for Covid-19 and were in self-isolation. Officials are tracing as many as 320 people as a result of the positive tests of the UK pair, who were given leave from managed isolation by health staff to drive to the capital after a parent had died.

Parliament was told the women got lost and needed directions. They gave their helper a "kiss and a cuddle".

In her post Alkin said: "The member had a training session at the gym on Tuesday morning and stayed back for group classes. Fortunate enough we still have the 2m mark down in our class studio, however my training sessions was hands on."

Alkin says she has cancelled her classes and appointments, and decided to self-isolate with her family.

The ministry said there were instances "in recent days" when the women from Britain had been given food parcels or care packages. Physical distancing had been in force at these times, the ministry said, and there was "no risk to the community from these interactions."

The emergence of the two cases led to widespread calls for someone to be held to account. In a separate move, the military was handed responsibility for the border facilities.

The Ministry of Health, which until yesterday was in charge of managing Covid-19 at the border, has come under fire in a damning report on its PPE preparedness and its failure to provide details about the border blunder.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has charged the military with taking over responsibility for the border facilities. Photo / Marty Melville
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has charged the military with taking over responsibility for the border facilities. Photo / Marty Melville

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called the error unacceptable and put the blame squarely on the ministry, saying it had given assurances protocols were in place.

"This case represents an unacceptable failure of the system. It should never have happened and it cannot be repeated," Ardern said.

Ardern put assistant chief of defence Air Commodore Darren (Digby) Webb in charge.

As well as overseeing all quarantine and managed-isolation procedures, Webb would do a start-to-finish audit of the current system.

"We need the rigour, we need the confidence and we need the discipline that the military can provide in what is a significant logistical exercise," Ardern said.

Webb could use military resources and personnel if needed and would regularly report to ministers.

"There is no room for error, even if it is human error," Ardern said.

"It is totally unacceptable that procedures we were advised were in place were not.

"Our job is now to fix that."

Both Government and Opposition ministers yesterday called for someone to be held accountable.

Ardern said that wouldn't be Health Minister David Clark as they had the proper protocols in place.

"He is part of fixing this issue, not part of the problem."

Clark expressed his frustration at the ministry for not being able to say how many people had left border facilities without being tested.

Ardern said the two women weren't to blame as they'd "done nothing wrong".

"From all accounts" they had followed the health protocols required of them and had not come into contact with anyone besides their parent as was approved, Ardern said.

This was echoed by Bloomfield who, in a statement, called their actions "exemplary".

An hour later, Woodhouse revealed a "reliable source" said the women had got lost on their drive to Wellington.

He alleged they stopped on the outskirts of Auckland to ask for directions and thanked their helper with "a kiss and a cuddle".

Woodhouse said he wanted an investigation.

Former Police Commissioner Mike Bush, who is responsible for the all isolation facilities, said last night he was looking into Woodhouse's claims.

He said it was a mistake the women weren't tested and blamed it on a "communications lapse".

All 230 residents at the Auckland hotel were tested yesterday and no one would leave until they had a negative result. The Ministry of Health could not say how many people had been released from isolation without being tested.

But it last night revealed on June 10, a day after funeral exemptions were banned, six people who'd flown in from Australia were allowed to attend a tangi in Hamilton.

The Ministry did not say whether the people were tested before leaving and it is not clear if they attended the tangi the day they arrived or later.

They were meant to return to the Pullman Auckland but two — an 18-year-old and a child — did not and had to be tracked down.

Meanwhile, when asked by Hosking about PPE, Bloomfield said it was held in national and DHB stocks.

Bloomfield said he was proud of what the Ministry of Health had done in sorting out the PPE issue, once it became obvious there was a problem with distribution.

"We did not run out and we've got very good stocks in supply."