Minister for Covid-19 calls for ‘clear picture’ on what went wrong at Port of Tauranga

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Pressure is mounting on authorities to explain what happened with the flip-flopping health advice given to workers at Port of Tauranga.

Port of Tauranga

Over 70 workers spent time on board the Rio de La Plata container ship. Photo: Supplied / Port of Tauranga

More than 70 workers spent time on board the Rio de La Plata container ship, which was carrying crew infected with Covid-19. It emerged today that Australian health officials believe the ship is the link to a snap lockdown in Cairns involving a pilot.

Maritime New Zealand received the alert about the ship, but later allowed it in and the local health authority gave it permission to berth, but Customs then shut down operations. The alert came because an Australian pilot who had been on board later tested positive for Covid.

All 110 workers tested have now returned a negative test, according to a statement released by the Ministry of Health this evening.

One of the tests that had been considered inconclusive has now been confirmed as negative.

Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said how the transmission with regard to pilot might have happened was still under investigation.

“That’s all being investigated at the moment. I don’t have a detailed timeline that obviously the New Zealand officials will be working closely with the Australian officials to piece that together. There’re a variety of different scenarios as to who could have infected who, which of course I want them to investigate all of those not making any assumptions,” he said.

Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young said the pilot developed symptoms on 31 July and thought he caught the virus on board of Rio de La Plata.

“Now we’ve got this information from New Zealand about the ship that he piloted. He came off that ship on the 23rd of July and we think that’s probably where he acquired it,” she said.

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“Then that taxi driver took the pilot to the airport on the 26th of July, and we know through whole genome sequencing that those two are linked, but that was before we thought he was infectious, which is why he wasn’t picked up on contact tracing.”

The ministry said in a statement that “any Covid-19 transmission between the reef pilot and other individuals in Queensland after he disembarked from the Rio De La Plata container ship would have no impact on the public health assessment of the risk posed to the New Zealand public, which remains low”.

Port of Tauranga

Photo: Supplied / Port of Tauranga

Back on board, the foreign crew members on the ship remain asymptomatic and the vessel is still anchored off the coast of Tauranga. Ministry of Health said a decision about where it goes next is yet to be made.

Hipkins said it was difficult to tell whether any mistakes had been made regarding the changing advice from authorities and he was not impressed information was not shared promptly.

“The advice I’ve had at the moment is that there were three main entities involved – customs, the local medical officer of health and the Ministry of Health, and so exactly who said what to whom, and you know who advised what to whom – that’s exactly what I want to know and at the moment I haven’t got a clear picture of that,” he said.

“One of the things that I am a bit frustrated by is that this information does seem to have been late in being shared. I only first found out about this on Sunday night, for example, so I’ve got some questions there and we’ll be looking pretty closely at who knew what and when.”

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Crew members coming to New Zealand ports are not regularly tested but all ships are treated as if they had Covid and infection-prevention protocols are followed, Hipkins said.

He also said ports will have to meet the September vaccination deadline.

The local public health unit, Toi Te Ora, confirmed 72 port workers boarded the vessel while it was docked in Tauranga. Initial reports of the numbers of port workers on the vessel also included individuals who were on the wharf but did not go onboard and they were also tested.

The two pilots, one of whom brought the Rio De La Plata into port and the other who took it out, have both now been tested, have returned negative results and will remain in isolation for the balance of the 14 days post-possible exposure, according to Ministry of Health.

“Public health staff have determined that the risk posed to the Tauranga community by the Rio De La Plata Covid-19 cases is low, and the steps taken to date are appropriately managing any risks. For this reason, there are currently no restrictions on events in Tauranga,” the statement said.

“The ministry is asking port workers, their close contacts and Tauranga community to remain vigilant and follow all health advice.”

Rail and Maritime Transport Union general secretary Wayne Butson said officials needed to learn from the botched advice.

“As a union, we would hope that the authorities have learned some lessons here and we won’t end up with a repeat of the on-again off-again, on-again off-again type process that we had with the ship.”

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