Managed isolation: A system in need of fixing, but it ain’t broke?

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Power Play – The country’s isolation and quarantine system isn’t broken according to a new review but the litany of failures uncovered at the border shows it’s anything but watertight.

The Navy has been posted outside a Novotel being used as a managed isolation facility in Auckland

The Navy has been posted outside a Novotel being used as a managed isolation facility in Auckland Photo: RNZ / Chen Liu

Yesterday Housing Minister Megan Woods – who has been appointed the minister-in-charge of quarantine and isolation facilities – and Air Commodore Darryn Webb announced the findings of a review, covering the process from when someone boards a plane to when they leave quarantine or isolation.

Pages and pages of faults were found, with an overall conclusion the system has been under “extreme stress”, unable to cope with the increasing number of people coming into the country.

While work is already underway to fix a number of the issues, compassionate exemptions under which people can leave managed isolation early for a funeral or other reason, remain suspended.

That’s because neither Woods nor Webb – the two big guns brought in by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – is satisfied the system can handle it – not a surprise given the review found there were no consistent standards from one facility to the next.

The review was triggered by multiple reports of people mixing and mingling in facilities, people leaving managed isolation without having been tested and members of the public holding events in hotels where managed isolation was taking place.

After a difficult two weeks for the government, including a flailing health minister attempting to throw his director-general of health under the bus, the review does little to inspire confidence in the system.

The same system Ardern spent hours of airtime stressing was New Zealand’s strongest defence for keeping Covid-19 at bay.

From the moment returning New Zealanders boarded planes at overseas ports there were problems, including some (mainly from Australia) reportedly completely unaware they were even required to isolate for 14 days on arrival.

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Frustration was high, meaning some facilities had requested more police presence.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Housing Minister Megan Woods arrive at a post-Cabinet media briefing.  22/06/20

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Housing Minister Megan Woods arrive at a post-Cabinet media briefing. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

There was no written information provided to returnees prior to entry to the country and no process to record their acknowledgement they would be required to enter into managed isolation or quarantine.

And flight manifests were only being provided once planes were in the air, giving little to no time for facilities to work out how many of the passengers they could accommodate on arrival.

To make matters worse the country moved into level 1 quickly, without the usual 48 hour transition other levels had required.

This was a combination of pressure from both the Opposition and New Zealand First and the fact thousands had ignored level 2 restrictions by taking part in Black Lives Matter protests across the country.

As a result the Director General of Health, Doctor Ashley Bloomfield, announced a new policy on June 9 – the first day of level 1 – that everyone in managed isolation was required to be tested for Covid-19 on day three and day 12 and not leave until they’d received a negative test.

That meant laboratories needed to process day-12 tests within 24 to 48 hours – something they didn’t have capacity to do at the time.

The review found the policy was “enacted without notice causing a significant bottleneck in the system and frustration”.

“Attempts to prioritise the day-12 samples were unsuccessful due to laboratory constraints”, it said.

It begs the question as to whether Dr Bloomfield ever asked those doing the testing whether it was feasible, or if he did, whether there was a reason why the health sector wasn’t honest about its inability to carry out the request.

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Director General of Health, Doctor Ashley Bloomfield Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Dr Bloomfield declined an interview with RNZ and Woods responded, “I’m not going to hazard a guess as to what led to that”.

All of that comes back to communication, or a lack of it, and Webb said there was plenty of room for improvement on that.

The whole communication strategy has a question mark over it given many of the issues highlighted in the review were exactly the same ones raised by the public, media and Opposition MPs over the last few months.

For days on end Dr Bloomfield and Ardern gave assurances about the availability of the PPE supply and the effectiveness of the distribution networks, in the face of countless examples on the ground that ran counter to those assurances.

On another front the government’s guidelines around wearing face masks became increasingly at odds with the evidence from the World Health Organisation.

The review found PPE wasn’t been used at the border, in airports, in transit, or in facilities and called for its use to be reconsidered.

In addition, mental health and addiction services will be made available in isolation.

Asked whether people had tried to deliver illegal substances to isolation facilities, Woods said “this is a broad cross-section of New Zealand society we have in our managed isolation facilities, it’s certainly something we want to ensure that only what should be going in is going in, and we’ll be putting in systems to make sure that’s the case”.

The increased presence of Defence Force personnel, police and even nurses will go a long way to relieving some of the concerns those in isolation and quarantine have been publicly expressing out of frustration.

There’s no community transmission in New Zealand, and if that’s the definition of the system not being broken, then it’s true the border has held up.

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But if the system ain’t broke, then why are so many people trying to fix it?

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