‘Really unfair’ to impose more restrictions on MIQ workers, says Chris Hipkins, despite claims of 'too many failures'

New Zealand won’t be following in the footsteps of Victoria by tightening its managed isolation and quarantine system, the Government says, despite five MIQ workers becoming infected with Covid-19 in the space of three months.

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The Minister for Covid-19 Response says he doesn’t think it’s right to add more restrictions on staff movements. Source: 1 NEWS

Since the Auckland August outbreak five MIQ workers including a nurse, a maintenance worker, and a Defence Force soldier have contracted Covid-19 while working at facilities such as hotels.

In four of these cases, the MIQ workers didn’t pass infection on to people in the community and close contacts were identified and isolated quickly.

However, in the case of the Defence Force worker - the most recent person infected with Covid-19 on the job - six people became infected in Auckland and Wellington.

One of those infected was an Auckland woman who lived and worked in the CBD. She was genomically linked to the Defence Force worker but how she contracted the virus is still unknown.

MIQ workers help keep New Zealanders safe from Covid-19 but putting themselves on the front line of the fight against a global pandemic doesn’t come without risk, despite working in a highly controlled environment.

The biggest risk is contracting the virus and bringing it into the community. Infected MIQ workers have attended gym classes, eaten out and been at bars with members of the public, increasing chances of community spread.

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Michael Baker says there needs to be systemic changes to border management. Source: 1 NEWS

This risk of spread from New Zealand’s MIQ facilities is what leading Kiwi epidemiologists Michael Baker and Nick Wilson would like to see addressed by the Government.

“New Zealand does have a big problem with its defective border controls system,” says Wilson.

“It has had far too many failures.”

However, Minister of Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins says there hasn't been a failure of the current MIQ system and staff are working their hardest to keep the virus at bay.

“We work really hard to make sure we’ve got dedicated work forces, particularly in our quarantine facilities," he says.

Victoria to bring in more restrictions for MIQ workers

Both Baker and Wilson agree that Victoria’s new rules for MIQ workers is something New Zealand could consider.

Last week, Victoria’s premier revealed its state’s quarantine facilities were being revamped and border staff would be contact traced before they work at the facilities.

The advance contact tracing of hotel quarantine staff is part of efforts by the state to avoid a repeat of the second Covid-19 wave which devastated the state in July and August. 

Staff will only be able to work for the quarantine hotel and will have to disclose contacts before they begin work.

Some will also have to move into a facility while they’re working there.

"We'll have an exclusive workforce. They can only work for us - they won't have any second jobs," Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews told the ABC.

"We may well have...some staff members who live at the actual hotel, a bit of a fly-in, fly-out type arrangement.

"We'll advance contact trace all those staff, so we know who they live with, what the people they live with do for a living - so we don't have someone sharing a house, for instance, with someone who works in an aged care facility.”

Baker believes this could work here in New Zealand.

“What Victoria is proposing is a very useful additional level of security for its MIQ facilities," he said.

“New Zealand should look at doing the same thing, particularly for staff of facilities that hold known Covid-19 infected cases e.g. Jet Park in Auckland.”

Wilson says the Government could continue to make improvements to the system by increasing the testing of workers, letting staff live onsite, having stand-down times for those attending large events like weddings or funerals and using the CovidCard in MIQ facilities.

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Leading epidemiologist Michael Baker calling for overhaul of MIQ process

Staff would also need to take a series of tests before going to high risk settings like gyms and nightclubs, he says.

Hipkins disagrees, saying New Zealand’s MIQ staff are already making a “significant sacrifice” by working at the 32 facilities across the country.

“I think it would be really unfair on them to impose significant restrictions on what they can do in their own time," he told 1 NEWS.

“These people are doing a really valuable job for our country. We should value the work that they’re doing, and we should be grateful for it.”

Hipkins believes New Zealand’s contact tracing system is robust enough to contain outbreaks and pre-contact tracing isn’t needed.

“You’ve seen that [contact tracing] operate several times now where we’ve had somebody who has tested positive, we’ve been able to isolate their close contacts very, very quickly and the virus hasn’t spread any further.”

He says the number of breaches that have happened across the border recently is low.

“We’re talking about a very small number of cases across a large number of people coming across the border at a time – in every one of those cases we’ve been able to contain it quickly without the need to further escalate alert levels.”

He emphasised that MIQ workers are “very vigilant” and are being tested frequently as well as receiving health checks every day and tracking their movements.

“This is a very, very monitored workforce. They’re doing incredibly important work and actually I have a lot of confidence in them and how careful they are and what they’re doing.”

Future improvements not ruled out 

Despite ruling out putting more restrictions on MIQ workers to prevent further border breaches, Hipkins isn’t entirely taking future changes off the table.

“We’re always looking at how we can improve our response and how we can improve our protections at the border.

“We’re always looking at the infection prevention protocols in a managed isolation facility.”

Some of these changes are already taking place with the announcement last week of the introduction of N95 masks.

These masks will now be worn by workers who may come within two metres of a confirmed or possible Covid-19 case.

The guidelines and restrictions on MIQ staff have been changing since the facilities began operating earlier this year.

In August, the Ministry of Health put a guideline in place requiring healthcare staff to only work for MIQ facilities.

Hipkins told 1 NEWS these new rules for healthcare workers was one of the ways MIQs are decreasing the risk of Covid-19 spread to the community.

“We are not allowing people to move across different sites in the way they might have been doing in the beginning. So, we’ve been working really, really carefully in a very considerate way to make sure we are stopping people from working at multiple different sites.”

Taking the initiative into their own hands, the Defence Force has introduced new rules recently for its staff to reduce the risk of another mini-outbreak like the November cluster.

Staff now have curfews and alcohol can only be consumed in their apartments. The NZDF has also brought in risk assessments for meetings at a facility and for when staff are off-duty or on leave from a MIQ facility, Newshub reports.

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The Government has announced 500 more Defence Force personnel to around 19 facilities. Source: 1 NEWS

A Managed Isolation and Quarantine spokesperson says police are rostered on for block shifts at a MIQ and do not work anywhere else.

“A pool of relievers is also available to cover one-off shifts when there is illness or staff absence.

“Should no relievers be available staff cover will be filled by general duty officers, however this would be a rare occurrence and would be managed in line with the strict infection prevention controls and well-established safety protocols in place.”

It's a different story for security and hotel staff however. Both security staff at the facilities including aviation security and hotel staff aren’t required to inform the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, who run the facilities, about whether staff have secondary jobs, the spokesperson says.

How are MIQ staff kept safe currently? 

MBIE supplied 1 NEWS information on how MIQ facilities are run to prevent staff, their family and wider community from contracting Covid-19 from returnees.

At the facilities staff must use PPE such as masks and gloves, keep up basic hygiene such as hand washing, follow infection prevention and control protocols as well as hotel and facility procedures. They also have health checks daily, are swabbed for Covid-19 regularly and have access to onsite nursing staff if they become unwell.

If unwell staff must stay home and notify their team leader.

Inside the facility staff change into work clothes and wear wipeable work shoes.

It is recommended they leave personal phones in a bag or staff areas and to avoid taking any personal items into returnee areas of the facilities.

Staff are “encouraged” to change into home shoes and clothes before returning home and to refrain from hugging family until they have washed or showered.

Staff are expected to keep records of their movements and close contacts when out in public.

Visits to MIQ facilities from government agencies or partner organisations are now limited, the spokesperson says.

If meetings at facilities need to go ahead, or there are off-site meetings with staff who work at facilities who need to be present, tech systems such as Zoom are now being used.