Category : News
Author: George Block

A Kiwi microbiologist who went through managed isolation in Auckland is worried a virulent new strain of coronavirus will leak into the community unless procedures tighten up.

But the Covid minister says things are much improved since the scientist's stint in November.

Duncan McMillan is an assistant professor of enzymology at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands.

He runs a pathogen laboratory at its biotechnology department handling infectious agents.

In this photo, captured by returnee Duncan McMillan from his window at the Novotel Auckland Airport, a staff member can be seen walking close to guests, one of many sights at the facility to concern the microbiologist.

McMillan returned to New Zealand from a stint overseas late in 2020 and checked in for his two-week stay at the Novotel Auckland Airport isolation hotel on November 4.

Over the next 14 days, the University of Otago-trained microbiologist and membrane biochemist was shocked by what he saw.

As 2021 dawned and the virulent new UK strain B.1.1.7 reached New Zealand shores, McMillan wrote to Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins outlining his concerns at some length, attaching photos to support his claims.

He did not hear back.

McMillan contacted Stuff after reading a story detailing allegations against three Defence Force personnel who worked at the same Novotel isolation facility.

He found New Zealand's managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) system to be “as leaky as a sieve" to a virulent pathogen, he wrote in an email to Hipkins.

“I did not go into MIQ thinking I would do an audit, but as soon as we were crowded onto a bus, ignoring all social distancing, and found my room to contain facial hair and an old used milk carton in the fridge, I have decided to take affirmative action,” he said.

In his view, the Defence staff at the hotel were not properly trained for the job, and he felt they were being unfairly blamed for quarantine breaches.

“They have no idea on how to be careful to the extent that is necessary, and there is seemingly little oversight by trained microbiology professionals.”

Microbiologist Duncan McMillan was not impressed with how things were run during his stint in managed isolation.

Along with crowding the arrivals onto the bus, McMillan said he found his room at the Novotel had not been properly cleaned since the last guest.

He also found himself having to remind guards to distance from each other and from guests.

“This is frankly outrageous when the guards frequently threaten people in these facilities with 'additional time' if they are perceived to get to close to each other.”

He frequently noticed bottles of half-empty hand sanitiser left out on the sun, which can reduce the alcohol content and therefore their effectiveness, he said.

As well, he saw new arrivals coming to the hotel and mixing with guests who had undergone their day-12 test and were preparing to leave, while he also never saw anyone clean buttons in the lift.

“It is fair to call me 'anally retentive' when it comes to health and safety, but that is exactly what is required right now.”

Also of concern to the scientist was nurses administering tests without wearing N95 masks.

“If one nurse gets infected, a lot of guests can be infected, which is especially risky after the day 12 test.”

There have been at least eight border failures since August where Covid made it into the communtiy, seven of which were likely linked to MIQs.

On that basis, he believes the new, more virulent strain will leak out of MIQ unless changes are made to procedures.

In a statement supplied after Stuff approached Hipkins' office with McMillan's concerns, the Minister said much had changed in MIQ since November.

All long haul travellers are now also tested on their first day and required to stay in their room until a negative result comes back, he said.

A staff member at a managed isolation hotel

As for the report of recent arrivals and people about to leave mingling, Hipkins said he had asked the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) to “check back with some urgency to find out what may have happened”.

“Returnees who are at different stages of their isolation are held within MIFs with strict infection prevention and control procedures and no close contact with each other.”

“I meet with MBIE and receive reports regularly, and in general I’m satisfied with the culture of improvement at our facilities.

“Our system is constantly responding to issues raised during regular audits or as a result of emerging health, security or other expert advice. Our absolute priority is keeping staff, returnees and the public safe.

“In particular, the staff do a vital job and deserve our thanks and respect.”

His staff were preparing a reply to McMillan's letter, the Minister said.

“My office arrived back after Christmas to more than a thousand emails and letters and has been progressively processing them.”

Note from Nighthawk.NZ:

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