National has criticised the Government’s response to the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, calling it a “weak response” which came a week late.
At least 56 people have died and nearly 2000 confirmed cases have been reported in China, according to the National Health Commission.
National Party Health spokesman Michael Woodhouse told TVNZ1's Breakfast this morning the Government “really should've acted earlier in putting in place border screening”, but added that “even that isn’t enough, in my view”.
“I became aware over the weekend that a tour party from China had arrived through New South Wales, having offloaded a passenger with symptoms of the virus," Mr Woodhouse said.
“That raises questions about whether our health authorities know about that and what they’re doing about it; whether they’re talking to accommodation providers, what advice they're giving to schools at the moment.
“They need to show New Zealand that they have a plan, that they’re following a plan and that they’re communicating it clearly to provide reassurance to Kiwis, and I’m not seeing any of that.”
He said the Government should have checked with Australian authorities to determine the status of the Chinese tour party believed to have symptoms the virus who were travelling from Australia to New Zealand, as well as their connections to New Zealand and other tour parties who may be travelling to New Zealand.
“Many of these packaged tours arrive into Australia and then come to New Zealand,” he said. “We don’t know whether they're doing that - they may be - but the [Health] minister and the Government have an obligation to provide reassurance to New Zealanders that they have this under control, and I certainly don’t have that reassurance.”
However, Health Minister David Clark later told Breakfast the tour group was alerted to concerns over the outbreak and had been examined by Australian authorities.
"Any who had any minor sniffles or any concerns are being actively monitored," he said. "That's what you do in situations like this - you take precautions and it’s better to be too cautious and monitor these situations to make sure nobody is at risk of spreading the disease."
Mr Woodhouse called a plan communicated to GPs and DHBs on January 6 insufficient, noting that "the virus and the issues have moved on very, very fast - much faster than this Government is moving."
"We've got schools going back this week, we do have much greater concern now than there was on the 6th of January, and yet all the Government has done is issue one press release and put two nurses at the airport. I don’t think that’s enough.”
He said there had been three outbreaks under the previous National-led government whose communication was “much greater” than the current Government.
“There is actually an exemplar of good practice and good communication. We had three outbreaks under the previous Government - swine flu in 2009, avian flu and MERS in 2013 - and the communication there was much, much greater and there appeared to be a much higher level of energy in responding to the risk. We're not seeing any of that this time.”
Mr Woodhouse said while National would not close borders to prevent the spread of the illness, it “does reinforce the need to have really good information and screening of travellers that are coming into New Zealand from those affected countries.”
“At the moment, we have a little bit of advice in Chinese language provided to flights coming from China. I think we need to do much, much more than that to ensure that people who may have been exposed to the virus are aware of the signs and symptoms and what to do if they become unwell in New Zealand, who to contact and what to expect.
“I'm calling on the Government to be much more energetic about making sure that information is provided to travellers.”
Mr Clark said while health officials have been briefed since January 6, international health experts say the best way to contain the spread of the virus is to hand out public health information in airports for people who may be asymptomatic.
"That's been happening for a wee while. That's the thing the international health experts, the doctors tell us is the most critical thing, because if people arrive asymptomatic, they need still to have that information so they can follow up, that's the best way of containing any virus that would arrive in New Zealand."