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Source: New Zealand Parliament – Hansard

CHRIS BISHOP (National): Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank the Minister for his statement. This was New Zealand’s first yo-yo lockdown when we went up to level 3 in Auckland, back down again, and then back up, all linked to the same cluster. So in light of that, it’s important we get to the bottom of what happened and learn those lessons. We on this side of the House have called for an inquiry, and I note the Government’s announcement of another group chaired by Sir Brian Roche to consider the events of the recent month, and we welcome that announcement.

I do have a question for the Minister, though, to start things off—I have several, but to start things off—whether or not he can update the House on the original source of the Valentine’s Day cluster and how the investigations are going into that. In particular, is there any clarity on whether it is linked to the case at managed isolation and quarantine, at the Four Points by Sheraton, as he signalled was possible a couple of weeks ago?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): With regard to the last part of the member’s question, no link has been established with that case at the Four Points. It’s important to note that whilst genome sequencing can reveal that cases are similar, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they come from the same place. So no clear link has been established there.

In terms of the overall source investigation, this may well be one of those cases where we never quite get to the bottom of exactly what happened here. We weren’t able to identify clearly the source of the Americold case which triggered the Auckland outbreak back in August, and it may well be that this is a similar situation. When in doubt, though, there are some more likely scenarios than others, and of course we do have a border worker who was involved here, and so that continues to be one of the more likely of a series of unlikely potential scenarios.

CHRIS BISHOP (National): Well, just as a follow-up to that, is the Government considering, then, bringing this particular border worker that possibly could be the original source infection—bringing them within the overall ambit of the testing regime?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): Yes, we absolutely will be doing that. I have just completed a review that we had already started before this most recent group of cases, of looking at that group that’s on the periphery of the border to make sure that everybody was captured that needed to be captured. So someone in the laundry, for example, when we did the initial risk assessment wouldn’t necessarily have been captured by that initial risk assessment. We’ve learnt a lot more in the six months or so since that first testing order was put in place, and as a result we have made additional changes.

One of the key challenges with that is around the handling of goods that come across the border, because not everybody who handles goods that come across the border—and there are many, many, many thousands of people in that category—is going to be at risk, but there are still some who could be at risk. So making sure that we’re narrowing that down so that we’re dealing with the risk but not capturing people who we hadn’t intended to capture has been one of the challenges.

CHRIS BISHOP (National): We described the decision to go from level 3 in Auckland to level 2 the first time as ambitious, and the reason we did that is that at that time we still didn’t know the source of the source infection, which we still don’t know. There were two new community cases that day and, critically, there were 363 students yet to return a negative COVID test. So my question for the Minister is—and it’s an important one in light of what’s going on potentially with travel bubbles with Australia and the Cook Islands—is the Government changing its general approach to risk? Does it continue to have a zero tolerance approach to community transmission, or has there been a slight loosening of the level of cases in the community that the Government and the country is prepared to tolerate?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): There hasn’t been a change to our appetite for risk, if you like. We’re still pursuing an elimination strategy. What there is is more confidence in our contact tracing systems. We have seen other examples over the last six months where we’ve dealt with cases without the need to escalate alert levels very successfully. There were some additional factors around this one—including not knowing the source and, more latterly, in terms of the second lockdown, there being some undisclosed contacts, which meant that there were a greater number of cases than would have otherwise been the case—that made this one a little bit different.

CHRIS BISHOP (National): Just in light of that comment around having more confidence in contact tracing systems, why did the Government fail two of the critical contact tracing metrics recommended by Dr Ayesha Verrall last year? I refer the Minister to metrics S001 and S002, which has been described as critical, and in the case of the Papatoetoe cluster the results were not good. S001, for members, is about the time from exposure to contact, isolation, and quarantine. The target is more than 80 percent within 96 hours. The achievement was 67 percent for Māori and 52 percent for non-Māori. S002 is about the time from case first symptom to contact, isolation, and quarantine. Again, the target’s more than 80 percent within 96 hours, and the achievement for this cluster was 75 percent for Māori and 62 percent for non-Māori. So the question for the Minister is: is he satisfied with those results and what’s being done to improve them?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): I’m not satisfied with those results. I think it’s important to acknowledge, though, in both of those metrics that not all of that is within the control of the contact tracing teams, because the ability to meet those targets really depends on being made aware of cases at the earliest possible opportunity. So if you think about the second metric that the member mentioned, the time between showing symptoms to a person being quarantined or isolated, that very much depends on people coming forward as soon as they show symptoms. In this particular set of cases, particularly the ones that we have dealt with most recently, there was evidence that people were showing symptoms for some time before they came forward and before they got tested, and therefore before they were identified. So those metrics would be thrown out. Similarly, with regard to the first one, we had examples there where people were not necessarily identified early enough in order to meet that first one. So that’s one of the challenges.

We are—with the review panel that I have announced today—going to be having another look at what the most appropriate metrics are, and I’ve had conversations with Dr Verrall already, because those metrics are very much designed for a system where there was transmission within the community. It was designed in a different context to the one that we’re dealing with now. Now we’re dealing primarily with cases that come through the border, and so we’ve got to have another look at whether those metrics are the most appropriate, because cases that come through the border, for example, they’ve often been infected well before they even arrive in New Zealand, before we could even hope to test them, and therefore the metrics would not accommodate that.