Covid clampdown: MIQ overhaul for high-risk arrivals; are India flights back?

Newstalk ZB / NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 23 Apr 2021, 9:23AM
Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

Covid clampdown: MIQ overhaul for high-risk arrivals; are India flights back?

Newstalk ZB / NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 23 Apr 2021, 9:23AM

The Government will move to a new risk-based approach for overseas arrivals that will see passengers on higher-risk flights kept together for their MIQ stay, the Herald understands.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins will today unveil the Government's plan to minimise the risk of returnees from countries ravaged by Covid-19, including India.

He will also outline the plan for the extra 1000 to 1300 MIQ rooms a fortnight that are freed up by the transtasman bubble - but they are unlikely to be used in a way that increases overall risk at the border.

Some of them will be used for foreign seasonal workers and students from countries that are free of any community transmission.

The travel ban from India looks unlikely to be extended beyond April 28, despite the number of cases in India tripling since the ban took effect.

"That has not been part of our thinking for citizens," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said yesterday about the possibility of extending it.

"We can't deem someone stateless. If a New Zealander is abroad, the only legal place they're able to reside, by default, is New Zealand. So we need to enable them to be able to travel home if they need to.

"We have Bora (Bill of Rights Act) obligations that we need to maintain."

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins will today outline how the Government plans to minimise the risk of overseas returnees from countries where Covid is rampant. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The Herald understands that the Government will instead hone in on other measures to minimise risk, including keeping passengers on high-risk flights together for their MIQ stay.

Currently people on the same flight are often taken to different MIQ facilities.

Cohorting arrivals by flight rather than by country-of-departure acknowledges the potential of in-flight transmission, of which there is documented evidence.

Chief among the red flags is the flight from United Arab Emirates, which has been used as a connecting flight for travellers leaving India, but also many other countries.

The April 10 flight that was serviced by the Auckland airport worker who tested positive this week came from the UAE, for example, and carried six passengers who later tested positive: three from India, two from Kenya, and one from Ethiopia who somehow passed the virus to the cleaner.

On Wednesday, Hipkins suggested a risk-based approach to overseas arrivals rather than a one-size-fits-all model, which Otago University public health experts have been calling for for several months.

Hipkins said the high-risk cohorts will be kept in exclusive MIQ facilities with fewer occupied rooms.

"The changes we're making for very-high-risk and high-risk arrivals ... will have an overall effect. By being stricter about the way we do cohorts, it will mean a greater number of rooms won't be filled," he said.

"There's a lot of countries that are high risk, but there is a small group of them that are very high risk - and India falls into that category."

It's unclear if there will be quarantine wings within those facilities, which would mean people who test positive while in MIQ would avoid the inherent risks associated with being transported to a different facility.

Hipkins has also asked for advice on strengthening pre-departure requirements, but it is unclear if these will change given how impractical any improvements are considered.

Travellers currently need to have a negative test within 72 hours of flying, but many infected passengers on the UAE flight are thought to have caught the virus before heading to the airport in their country of departure, on their way to the airport, at the airport, or on the flight.

Preventing these types of transmission would be difficult short of requiring travellers to quarantine in an approved place near the airport before departure for several days.

Epidemiologist Michael Baker has pushed for pre-departure declarations where travellers spell out the measures they'll take, such as no social activities or staying in an airport hotel, for several days before flying.

Baker has also pushed for more frequent testing for MIQ workers, such as the daily saliva tests that certain border workers have to have in NSW.

This is supported by Professor Michael Plank, principal investigator at Te Pūnaha Matatini, who is doing some risk-modelling for the Government.

"We've seen quite a few cases of people working in MIQ facilities getting infected - that's a significant risk when you have lots of infected people arriving," Plank said.

"People that clean and work in those hotels are at risk. If we do daily saliva testing, that will help to pick up any infections as soon as possible."

Highest risk of importing cases from India

Plank said India was the most worrying country at the moment and, through March and April, 10 to 15 per cent of arrivals from India had gone on to test positive.

"It's been around 1 per cent as an average of arrivals who have tested positive. The US and the UK, at the peak of the wave around January, was in the 2 to 5 per cent range.

"If 10 to 15 per cent of people getting on a plane are infected, then it's really too many. We need to do something to reduce that number before you can really allow travel to resume safely."

Plank said keeping cohorts together by flight was a good move to reduce risk, as was reducing MIQ capacity and the number of available seats on transports to and from MIQ.

He said arrivals from most other countries should still spend 14 days in MIQ, given the surge in cases across Europe as well as the US.

This week Ardern and Hipkins have urged Kiwis abroad to book flights home because MIQ has been far from full capacity.

On Tuesday there were about 1400 free rooms out of the 4000-room capacity, with 3792 people expected to arrive in the next fortnight.

Total available capacity has dropped by 500 rooms, which are being kept free for added transtasman contingencies.

Of the 500 to 800 remaining free rooms a fortnight freed up by the transtasman bubble, some will be used by the hundreds of family members reuniting with migrants working in New Zealand.

Less-than-ideal MIQ facilities may be used for seasonal workers or international students from low-risk countries, Hipkins has said.

"We could utilise some of those facilities that in the long-term we may not want to keep, but we may use them in the shorter term for things like RSE workers or even potentially lower-risk cohorts of international students."

In January this year, Hipkins flagged the return to New Zealand of 1000 international tertiary students, degree level and above, with the first 300 arriving this month and the rest as MIQ availability allowed.

By: , NZ Herald