While the Government tried to call for calm yesterday over the Northland Covid-19 case, the National Party and the Australian Government did exactly the opposite.
National cancelled its caucus retreat in Whangarei next week and shifted it to Wellington while the Australian Government required travellers from New Zealand over the next 72 hours to go into managed isolation.
The most visible sign of panic was all-day queues in Whangarei for people waiting to get Covid-19 tests.
The Northland District Health Board was seemingly caught unawares by what appears to have been widespread panic in the region and was overwhelmed by people seeking tests.
But Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins was yesterday insisting that for the meantime anyway, it was business as usual.
Most importantly, he saw no threat at this stage to the introduction of the Pacific and Australian travel bubbles by possible the middle of the year.
Asked at yesterday’s press conference about the plans for establishing the Pacific bubble, Hipkins said: “Nothing to add there, at this point, our plans remain as they have been.”
But he made those comments before Australia clamped down on Kiwi travellers. Though to put it in perspective, the Australian move simply places New Zealanders travelling to Australia now in the same position as Australians travelling to New Zealand have always faced.
The irony for Hipkins and Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield is that though their communications seem to be a problem, the main working bits of the Covid-19 strategy did work.
“The case”, as the Northland woman who tested positive is being described, seems to have assiduous in her usage of the Covid-19 app which has made contact tracing much easier.
That ability to contact trace will be critical when (and if) the bubbles open.
Hipkins underlined the importance of contact tracing in avoiding further lockdowns.
“You’ll see from the various incidents that we’ve had to respond to over the last six months or so, that taking the August outbreak aside, actually, a contact tracing system has helped us to avoid having to have any further restrictive measures put in place,” he said.
Though critics might see an opportunistic element to publicly diminish New Zealand’s comparative success in managing Covid-19 in the Australian decision yesterday, the country’s Health Minister Greg Hunt raised a key question about the situation here.
Asked about reasons for the suspension, Hunt said that the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) had “unanimously recommended” an immediate response from the Government to implement the 72-hour pause.
“All passengers from New Zealand with a green safe travel zone flight scheduled in the next 72 hours, reconsider their need to travel,” he said.
“They will, as a consequence, have to go into hotel quarantine.”
“Anyone who arrived from New Zealand on or since January 14 must also isolate and be tested.”
“It was simply because of the length of the period between the infection and the confirmation and that this was one of the potentially far more transmissible variants,” he said.
Hipkins said yesterday that the woman was likely infected between January 9 -13 while staying in managed isolation in Auckland’s Pullman Hotel and possibly caught the infection from a fellow guest who was staying in a room near hers.
“The case” left the hotel on January 13 and on January 15 began to display some symptoms consistent with Covid-19.
She took a week to get a test which she did on January 22, and that was returned positive on the night of January 23 (Saturday).
Hipkins said yesterday that genome testing had now confirmed that he had caught the same South African strain which her infected neighbour had in the Pullman.
He said CCTV footage was now being scanned to see how the infection might have been passed on.
But though “the case” assiduously used her Covid-19 tracing app between January 14 and the 22nd, what is obviously worrying the Australians is that eight-day gap where she travelled from Ruakaka to Mangawhai to Maugnaturoto to Matakohe and then later in the week, Helensville.
The Ministry did not release the list of places “the case” had visited until 7.30 p.m. on Sunday night.
Hipkins defended this delay.
“We do have we do take a reasonable period of time to endeavour to get in contact with people where QR code scanning has identified as being a potential risk area,” he said.
“But we have to draw a line on that somewhere.
“We do need to get that information out to the public, which we did last night.”
However, that delay and the relatively late hour at which the information was published may have left an information vacuum could have been a factor in stimulating what seems to have been an all-round stampede to get tested in Northaldn yesterday. The danger of that was that the people who needed testing were being pushed aside in the general rush.
“There is high demand,” said Bloomfield yesterday.
“We want the people who were at those places at the same time and date to be prioritised for testing.
“There are a lot of people turning up in Northland who are neither symptomatic nor places.”
But it appears there were no systems in place to triage the lengthy queues of people who turned up wanting to be tested.
“By 11:00 a.m. this morning, nearly a thousand people had been tested across the region,” he said.
“For comparison at the same time, last Monday, there was just over 200.
“So it’s great to see the response.
“We do want to ensure it is the right people being tested.”
The key data that the Ministry of Health is waiting for is the result of tests of the people who were at the 30 venues visited by “the case”.
Bloomfield said he expected that within the next 48 hours.
“And so within 48 hours, we’ll have a good idea of whether or not there’s been any further spread,” he said.
That timing is presumably why the Government is not at this point talking about cancelling Waitangi celebrations which are due to start.
Bloomfield said there was a group of senior Ministry of Health officials already liaising with Ngapuhi and Ngati Whatua about the celebrations and Hipkins said officials spoke on Sunday to the iwi Leaders’ group about the situation.
“But I have yet to see any evidence that suggests that Waitangi will be disrupted,” he said.
“And I’m feeling a bit more optimistic about that today than yesterday.
“But we’re still in the early stages of this.
“So I do want to reiterate that, that, you know, people should stay vigilant. Please keep doing all of the right things.”
The big question though is what if there are more community cases. Again Hipkins emphasised the key importance of contact tracing.
That more than anything, apart from management of the border is what the Government’s Covid-19 strategy rests on.
“Towards the end of last year, we went through what might happen in the event of a resurgence,” he said.
“We are not at that point.
“At this stage, we are still dealing with a case, and we’re still working very, very hard to identify the contacts and to isolate that case so that we don’t need to go there.
“But we are ready if we do need to.”