New Zealand coronavirus defences under scrutiny as more breaches emerge

More reports have emerged in New Zealand of people leaving isolation without being tested and going on to meet friends, placing government officials under increasing scrutiny over the rigour of their Covid-19 quarantine rules.

Police revealed that six people absconded from managed isolation after being granted compassionate leave from Covid-19 quarantine to attend a funeral in Hamilton.

TVNZ reported that a birthday party for a girl in isolation brought people together who should not have been mingling.

A Christchurch funeral director told Stuff that about 10 people had been let out of quarantine early to attend one of the funerals it had arranged on Tuesday. Steve Parkyn, chief executive of funeral directors Lamb and Hayward, said he refused to let them attend the service after being contacted by health authorities, but they joined mourners at the burial, accompanied by a health official. Around 200 people attended the funeral.

On Tuesday, New Zealand recorded its first new cases of the virus for 24 days after two New Zealanders, sisters returning after travelling to the UK, were found to be infected. The pair, who were permitted to leave their managed isolation early to visit a dying parent, but had not been tested.

Government policy is for everyone in 14-day managed isolation to be tested twice for Covid-19 and to return a negative result before leaving. However, exemptions on compassionate grounds were allowed.

Dr Ashley Bloomfield, the director general of health, was forced to apologise on Thursday after initially claiming the sisters had not contacted anyone during their road trip from Wellington to Auckland. It was revealed late on Wednesday that they came into contact with at least two friends who helped them after they got lost on a motorway.

Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield has apologised after it emerged the women in the initial breach had met other people. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Bloomfield said it was a “fleeting interaction” and both those friends had been tested and were now in isolation. Bloomfield told Radio New Zealand that there had been a slip up in the process. “I’ve taken responsibility and we are sorting it out. I’m sorry that that happened.”

Officials are now tracing 313 “close contacts”– instead of the previously stated 320 – of the two women, which includes hotel workers, guests, health staff and aircrew.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the military would audit and oversee quarantine arrangements.

The opposition health spokesperson, Michael Woodhouse, said health minister David Clark should step down for being “completely disengaged from his role”.

“If I was the minister this wouldn’t have happened,” Woodhouse said.

The breaches have forced a rethink for some planned “travel bubbles”. Samoa has said it would review its plan to reopen travel corridors. The prime minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, said the news had disrupted plan to bring seasonal workers home from New Zealand. He said: “Quite a lot of seasonal workers want to return home. Another thing, those leading these groups of seasonal workers who are overseas are persistently requesting [the government act] regarding this.”

Winston Peters, the minister of foreign affairs said that a potential trans-Tasman travel bubble had not been jeopardised despite the breaches, because it still dealt with two “Covid-safe states”.

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