Public health experts have multiplied calls for a “benchmarking exercise” with Australia on Covid-19 and border management. Photo / Dean Purcell
Public health experts have multiplied calls for a “benchmarking exercise” with Australia on Covid-19 and border management, after picking out more than a dozen New Zealand failures so far.
In a blog post published todayThe University of Otago research team argues that New Zealand still does not have optimal control over its borders against Covid-19, and defines five ways to combat further leakage – including offering vaccinations to arriving travelers.
Their analysis found that, since last July, there have been 13 identified border failures, along with six failures that occurred in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities.
The largest resulted in August’s Auckland cluster, which involved 179 cases and three deaths – and was one of two failures that forced the city to be isolated on three occasions.
The researchers cited official estimates that put the daily costs of locking Auckland up to $ 75 million in GDP, along with 250 job losses.
Overall, however, they said New Zealand had done “very well” with the pandemic response, which was among the best in the world.
While the vaccine rollout that started with border workers was a welcome development, they said a “green zone” of New Zealand’s quarantine-free travel to form with Australia would present more challenges.
“This green zone means our biosecurity status will be more linked to Australia,” they said.
Therefore, it is even more important to reduce the risk of border failures that could disrupt green zone travel, especially if the outbreak is initially insufficiently contained.
“This situation provides us with an opportunity to compare our current measures with those used by the eight states and territories in Australia.”
Among the five measures they recommend is slashing the number of infected travelers arriving at MIQ facilities – something that means receiving fewer arrivals from “red zone” countries such as the US, UK and India, along with extra measures such as pre-departure testing.
All returnees may also be offered vaccination on arrival.
“While this will only offer partial immunity while in MIQ, it may still be of benefit.”
They are again making a case for only using MIQ facilities in major cities for the lowest-risk travelers – such as those from Australia until the bubble opens – and exploring purpose-built facilities away from city centers.
In addition, they said all MIQ areas that were shared, such as those used for sports and smoking, were removed, with the requirement for returnees to stay in their rooms as was the case in Australia.
“There should be practical support for returnees who wish to exercise in their rooms, and smokers should be offered nicotine replacement therapy and other smoking cessation care and support.”
Finally, they are calling for a daily PCR-based saliva testing mandate for MIQ workers.
“This option could also be explored for travelers in MIQ in addition to the current testing regimen to allow for comparative assessments,” they said.
“This test is used in parts of Australia and in other countries.”
The researchers go on to suggest New Zealand should aim to have a “failure rate” compared to Australia.
“As of March 29, New Zealand’s MIQ system had a seven-day average turnover of four new positive cases per day – suggesting that the risk of transmission in MIQ may still be large,” they said.
“To ensure the success of the upcoming quarantine-free green zone between New Zealand and Australia, more preventive interventions are needed to reduce the frequency of these failures.
“Conducting MIQ benchmarking exercises and broader border management measures in Australian states and territories can identify potential improvements in policy and practice in both countries.”
Yesterday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – who will announce a start date for next week’s bubble – said arrangements with Australia were still being worked out.
While he did not share specifics on the criteria for closing borders in a particular outbreak, Ardern pointed out the importance of providing predictability to tourists.
That includes telling them how prepared they are, if they have to stay where they are in the event of a border closure.
He also gave some indications of how New Zealand might interact with the separate states.
“Yes, there really is a possibility that if a country has an outbreak, if we believe that border controls are in place, we can shut down that state, while continuing to travel elsewhere.”