Opinion: Don't direct anger at returning Kiwis over managed isolation

Kristin Hall
Source: 1News

Kristin Hall, who has covered the issue of quarantine centres in detail over recent days, says the people in them don’t deserve to be attacked by keyboard warriors.

For 24 glorious days, New Zealand was the envy of just about every Covid-embattled country in the world.

We had no new cases of the deadly virus, either in Government-managed isolation or in the community - a streak which was bound to end as New Zealanders returned home and cases were picked up at the border.

But as two women who arrived from the UK know better than anyone, not everyone was tested before they left their managed isolation hotel.

The news the pair tested positive for Covid-19 after making a 600km car journey as part of a compassionate exemption sent shockwaves throughout the country, and rightly so.

It was a glaring error, but it was not the fault of two grieving women, and it was far from the only instance in which recently arrived travellers had left isolation without being tested.

The day those cases were made public and compassionate exemptions were canned, Nicole Flasza and her husband were making the very same Auckland to Wellington drive after the sudden death of Nicole’s father.

They had been in managed isolation in Auckland for 10 nights after arriving from Australia, and had been desperate to get tested so they could speed up their exemption request.

They were told no by staff at their hotel, despite the requirement for a day three and day 12 test (plus a negative result required before release) being announced more than a week prior.

Hotel staff said there were no DHB nurses available to test them at the hotel, and the pair were instructed to get tested at a community testing facility once they were in Wellington. They received negative results a few days later, a matter of sheer good luck.

They weren’t alone, that same week a contact of the two women from the UK was tested but discharged before she received a negative result.

A health worker, she had repeatedly asked the officials at the Novotel Ellerslie for her results, and was told to get another test once she was home - a plane, train, and taxi ride away. She wore PPE on the journey, and received a negative result once she’d been tested at her GP - good luck to the rescue again.

A mum of two was told testing was optional at Auckland’s Waipuna Hotel, and that it would be “pointless” because she and her family weren’t showing any symptoms.

The four family members were released without a test from the same hotel where officials facilitated a birthday party for a young guest, with passengers from a range of flights in attendance. After speaking up about that incident, the woman found an inbox full of abusive messages blaming her for not being tested.

The line of personal responsibility is a convenient one for the Government to make, and an easy one for the public to follow.

It’s easier to slam individuals for daring to come home than it is to examine where a health system with a previously near-perfect record has failed. Last Friday, the new man in charge of managed isolation said people must be “responsible for their own actions”.

“We did not require a police officer on every street corner during the lockdown here in New Zealand, and each New Zealander played their part.

"We are asking the same of returnees during their stay in managed isolation and quarantine to take responsibility for their own actions and to ensure they abide by the requirements of their stay,” Air Commodore Darryn Webb said.

Take a hard look at that wording and then ask yourself why the tide has turned against ‘returnees’ speaking up about gaps at the border.

People who’ve been interviewed about issues from mingling, to lack of testing, to basic organisational failures have been slammed by commentators on social media as entitled, irresponsible and perhaps most ridiculously "fame-hungry".

It’s easy to forget that going to journalists with concerns is very rarely the first port of call for people on any issue, including this one.

People I’ve spoken to in the past week include hotel managers, sanitation experts and nurses, some went as far as writing official reports listing the failings they had witnessed in the hotels, based on their decades of experience.

Only once their concerns were ignored did they notify the media.

Remember these are New Zealanders who want to keep Covid-19 out of the community as much as everyone else.

The improvements, inspections and reviews that have been hurriedly announced in the last week are a direct result of those people taking their concerns beyond a government email address.

The "blame the travellers" approach also ignores the huge amount of public confidence that’s been built up in the system, and the resulting resistance to question certain decisions.

If you’re a young Kiwi who’s been told by someone with a clipboard it’s ok to be shifted from hotel to hotel despite being an untested contact of a confirmed case, that is what you are going to believe.

The latest group suffering the outrage of keyboard warriors are those who’ve recently been put up at the Ibis Hotel in Rotorua.

Hundreds of people were moved from a plane that had strictly enforced social distancing and mask use, to a crowded bus with no mask provision.

They were told 20 minutes into their journey they would be going to Rotorua instead of Auckland, a decision that was made at the last possible minute, given the 300 permanent residents at the Auckland hotel they were destined for had complained.

Those complaints turned out to be warranted, the pin was pulled because of a shared air bridge and fire exit, at the Stamford, which is being reviewed.

Commentators quickly took to social media to admonish those who dared to speak up - returned Kiwis on the buses were arrogant and privileged, the elderly and vulnerable residents of the Stamford Hotel were NIMBYs.

I don’t know about you, but if a shared high-rise building is your backyard, I wouldn’t want Covid-19 in mine either.

It is a wonderful thing that New Zealand is in the position to cover the isolation and quarantine of returning Kiwis, many of us could only dream of a catered two week stay in a four star hotel.

But the vast majority of these complaints are not about unfluffed pillows or over-cooked scotch fillet. They are genuine concerns over lack of organisation, planning, and health procedures at our border. If that border is breached, it affects us all.