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Source: New Zealand Parliament – Hansard

CHRIS BISHOP (National): Thank you, Mr Speaker, and can I thank the Minister for COVID-19 Response for that update. Can I also start by thanking everyone who has gone out and got a test in the community—thousands of people. I thank our essential workers who are keeping our shelves stocked, keeping the country fed, keeping the country moving. I thank our healthcare workers, who were under pressure before but are under even more pressure now—so everyone doing the testing, doing the vaccinating, including those in the conditions in Auckland today—and thank you to all the Kiwis who have lined up to get vaccinated. That’s the way out of this lockdown and it’s the way to connect to the rest of the world. Some questions for the Minister: how many contacts have been identified but have not yet had a test?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): If I get the right table, I can run through those in a bit more detail. In terms of the closest contacts, if we call them that for now: 924 of them have been identified and we have results for 738 of them. Of the close contacts, the next level down, 30,887 have been identified and 27,687 we have a test result for so far. It’s important to note that there will sometimes be a justifiable reason why a person may not have been tested yet, because that’s determined by when their potential exposure was, and if they’ve only recently been potentially exposed, the test may not be taken immediately, and may be taken a couple of days later.

CHRIS BISHOP (National): Can I ask the Minister why these updates are not regularly provided as part of the 1 p.m. or sometimes 4 p.m. updates. They tend to be a little bit sporadic—sometimes we get them, sometimes we do not—and I think there would be greater surety for the public if they were provided as a matter of course by the ministry.

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): I think one of the challenges for the people who produce all of this information every day is that there is a very large volume of information that they’re dealing with now—612 total cases that they’re dealing with at the moment, which is far greater than we’ve dealt with in previous outbreaks. It does mean that there is a bigger lag between when information is first identified and when it is publicly disclosed, so often the case numbers that we get and that we release each day will then be followed up by a more detailed breakdown of the case information from the day before, because of the amount of time that it takes just to make sure that the teams are compiling that information and reporting that as accurately as possible. We certainly do endeavour to be as transparent with the information and with a whole variety of different statistics as soon as we possibly can be.

CHRIS BISHOP (National): Can the Minister tell the House how many COVID-positive cases have been infectious in the community since the lockdown started?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): I can’t give an absolutely accurate account of that at this point. What I can say is if we look at our essential workers, for example, there are over 100 essential workers who have been identified as positive cases—I think, from memory, about 107. So far we’ve only seen evidence of four transmission events in the workplace. Those numbers do move around a bit, but those were the most recent numbers that I had to hand.

CHRIS BISHOP (National): Yesterday or the day before we were told that the effective reproduction rate (R rate) was less than 1, which is obviously good news. A couple of questions on that: is it still less than 1 today; is it being calculated daily; and, if so, why is it not being made public daily?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): I’m sure that the R rate could be included in the daily updates, if that’s what the member wanted. The advice that I’ve had is that the R rate continues to trend down.

CHRIS BISHOP (National): Can I ask the Minister around contact tracing, which has been an area of concern for people, why did it take six days for the Public Service to start secondments from within the Public Service to public health units to boost up surge capacity for contact tracers?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): One of the things about the contact-tracing process when you’re dealing with a large outbreak is that the overall number of contact tracers required continues to grow. We don’t necessarily need as many contact tracers in the beginning, when you’re chasing down a smaller number of cases, but as that case number grows it’s important that we surge that workforce, and that’s exactly what’s been happening.

CHRIS BISHOP (National): To the Minister in relation to that, I think he’s touched on an issue that people are concerned about, which is the lack of planning for this outbreak, and I’d refer him to the remarks of Philip Hill, who most recently conducted a report for the Government in relation to contact tracing, saying, and I quote him, “We previously warned in each of the three previous reports since mid-2020 that New Zealand would struggle to deal with a significant outbreak if capacity wasn’t increased substantially. We have not seen how this has been addressed since the report submitted in early June this year.” A lot of people are very concerned that despite repeated warnings by a variety of experts since the lockdown last year, not enough effort has gone into increasing surge capacity for contact tracing. What is his response to that?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): I would say to judge the system based on its results in the current outbreak. So if we look at the overall number of close contacts that have been identified, recognising that we are differentiating between the closest contacts and other close contacts, we’re talking about nearly 32,000 identified so far. Now, that’s over a 14-day period, so that is well more than the 1,000 a day that some of those earlier reports were identifying we needed the capacity to be able to contact trace.

CHRIS BISHOP (National): Does the Government have an updated version of what’s become known as the “Ayesha Verrall metrics”, which is how people can essentially assess how the Government’s doing? Obviously, I think everyone recognises the April 2020 numbers are out of date now, or the metrics are out of date, but what are the new metrics?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): We haven’t necessarily agreed a final revised set of metrics. We continue to use those metrics as they were identified by Dr Verrall. It’s important in the way that they’re reported that we differentiate, I guess, between the very early phase of an outbreak and the bit that we’re in at the moment, where more regular updates are required that remove from the statistics some of those earlier numbers, because those earlier numbers can be distorting of the overall performance of the system here and now.

CHRIS BISHOP (National): A couple of questions on alert levels. If contacts in the South Island continue to test negative, when will the South Island move down alert levels?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): The Cabinet will make further decisions on that next week. I generally am very reluctant to crystal ball gaze and forecast what might be in those decisions, but, of course, if we continue to see no cases outside of the upper North Island, that’s very encouraging, and that’s certainly something that Cabinet will be looking very closely at, but we’ll also be looking at the testing results for those contacts that have been identified who are currently isolating outside of the upper North Island. We want to make sure that they have all been tested and that we’ve got all of the results for that. I think the last thing anybody wants to see is that we go down alert levels and then find that another positive case or two pops up and potentially increases the risk profile. We want to eliminate that possibility as much as we can before any alert level change.

CHRIS BISHOP (National): How many people are still at home waiting to be transferred to an MIQ facility?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): That number does vary. I think the latest number this morning was that it could be sitting around 50 to 60 people that are awaiting transportation. There’s a couple of things in that. There are various parts of the process—and we’ve been working to make sure that we understand every part of that process, including the bit between referral and MIQ, getting the notification and then MIQ getting someone to go and pick them up and transfer them to quarantine. There can be a lag in some parts of that process, and we’ve been working to identify where the potential delays in that process are so that they can be remedied as quickly as possible.

CHRIS BISHOP (National): Does he have any numbers on just how long on average people wait between testing positive and having to be transferred to MIQ? I know it may not be possible to work it out on average, but even just a guestimate for about how long it takes?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): No I don’t, but I can certainly give the member a breakdown. The vast majority of people are there within 48 hours, but I just don’t have the statistical breakdown, but certainly happy to find that.

CHRIS BISHOP (National): I understand Pasifika make up a large proportion of the people we’re talking about here. A couple of questions in relation to that. Are there translators available on site if required? Has there been a requirement for the translation of documentation? And what welfare checks and services have been put in place for this community?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): In answer to the question around overall translation: yes, translation is provided where necessary. In terms of the documentation, the welcome pack that people get when they come into MIQ has been translated into a number of languages. Samoan is one of those languages that it’s already been translated into. We are looking at whether there are other Pacific languages, given that there are a number of Pacific people involved in this current outbreak, that it should be translated into as a matter of priority. But I can confirm that translation is available in a variety of different languages, even if the hard packs of materials aren’t translated into every conceivable language at this point.

CHRIS BISHOP (National): We’ve been told by high sources that the Government’s obsessed with the source investigation into the Crowne Plaza. Can he provide an update to the House on how that’s going, and is there a current working hypothesis on how the case got from the Crowne Plaza to Case A?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): Look, I can assure the member that there is a lot of emphasis going on finding out exactly what happened at the Crowne Plaza. As the Minister responsible for MIQ, of course, I want to get to the bottom of that because it’s one of our larger MIQ facilities, and I want to be able to put people into it again, and that will be a lot easier once we know exactly what has happened there—if, in fact, we can find out exactly what has happened there. There are a variety of different scenarios that are being explored, and I’m not willing at this point to put my penny down on one of them as being the most likely.

CHRIS BISHOP (National): Was he surprised to learn that the Crowne Plaza passed all its infection control audits most recently as June?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): Yes I am. The one additional risk that has been identified is that one of the physical barriers in the atrium didn’t go all the way to the ceiling. That’s been remedied. One of the things that they’ve been testing is to make sure that in imposing, effectively, an airlock by bringing the barrier all the way to the ceiling that we’re not increasing the potential flow of air from one space to another through the air conditioning system. So they’re in the process of testing all of that at the moment. In terms of the alleyway down the side of the facility that people are concerned about, I would note that there is a solid barrier between the alleyway and the exercise area.

CHRIS BISHOP (National): Why did it take an outbreak for the Government to commence an investigation of infection control in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) in the light of the Delta variant, when Delta has been in our MIQ facilities for some months now?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): I completely reject the member’s assertion in that question. Regular audits of infection and prevention control in every one of our MIQ facilities are being done all of the time, and they are always taking into account the latest science regarding all of the different variants and also what we understand about the existing variants of the virus that we have been dealing with. Those audits are being done by infection prevention and control experts who are versed in the latest information and the latest research.

CHRIS BISHOP (National): The member might reject it, but I’m just merely quoting both him and Dr Bloomfield, and I think also the Prime Minister, who has said that the Government will be doing a review of MIQ facilities in the light of the Delta variant. But notwithstanding that, can I ask about Bluetooth tracing. We’ve all been told for many months now, “Turn on your Bluetooth and use it.”, and now it turns out in this outbreak that Bluetooth is not being used as part of the contact tracing. I think many people are surprised at that. Why is that the case?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): The contact tracers will use the best information that is available to them. Bluetooth is one of the tools that we supply to them. They will make judgments about whether the data that they’re getting out of Bluetooth or out of the QR code scanning or out of other methods is the best data to use in the context of a specific case investigation.

CHRIS BISHOP (National): So can he say, hand on heart, to New Zealanders and the House right now, “Turn on Bluetooth.”, in light of the fact that we have a very large outbreak with a high number of close contacts and Bluetooth has not been used, as I understand it, since 17 August as part of the contact tracing?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): Yes I can. I can say to all New Zealanders that there are a whole variety of things we ask them to do as precautionary measures in the event that we need to obtain that information, including scanning QR codes if they’re in the South Island, for example. One could say that because we’re not sending out current push notifications to people in the South Island they shouldn’t scan their QR codes; they’d be wrong if they were making that assertion. Having Bluetooth turned on adds an additional tool to the tool kit, and it doesn’t cost people anything, it doesn’t mean that they have to do anything extra, other than one thing that takes about 30 seconds to do.

CHRIS BISHOP (National): Final question on saliva testing: Dr Bloomfield said a week ago the Government was going to talk to private sector partners for, potentially, saliva testing. What has happened to that, and why has the Government not used it as part of this outbreak?

Hon CHRIS HIPKINS (Minister for COVID-19 Response): We are using saliva testing, and that includes for those who are on a regular testing cycle. So they can access saliva testing now, and hundreds of our border workers are taking up the opportunity to do that. And we continue to look at how we can continue to scale that up.

Debate interrupted.