New Zealand is no longer free of coronavirus after two women travelled there from the UK and left their self-isolation facility to drive eight hours to a funeral.
The Pacific nation and its Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had won international praise for appearing to eradicate Covid-19, with no new cases recorded in 24 days thanks to a strict and early lockdown.
Now they’re back to square one after the women, aged in their 30s and 40s and both from the same family, tested positive for the virus.
They arrived together in Auckland from the UK on June 7, after a stopover in Brisbane, and were housed in an isolation facility as part of New Zealand’s tracing system, which requires all international arrivals to self-isolate for 14 days.
Only Kiwis, their families and essential workers are currently allowed to cross the border.
But on June 13, just six days into their quarantine, the two women were granted a compassionate exemption to leave the facility and attend a funeral in Wellington, 650km away.
They had not yet been tested for Covid-19 at this point.
After co-ordinating a safety plan with heath officials, they drove a private vehicle to the capital without making any stops to refuel or use public toilets, and have stayed with a single relative since arriving in Wellington.
As part of their agreement with the Ministry of Health, the women were both tested for coronavirus on Monday and on Tuesday morning their results came back positive.
The country’s Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield, who has become a national icon and a sex symbol during the pandemic, delivered the bad news that afternoon, provoking widespread anger at “the UK cocking it up again”, as one Twitter user put it.
Many Kiwis are outraged that the women were allowed to leave self-isolation early before they had even been tested.
Others are angry at Dr Bloomfield’s admission that one of the women was showing “mild symptoms” of Covid-19 on the day she travelled to Wellington, but assumed it was from a pre-existing condition.
One New Zealand Reddit user said the woman with symptoms “obviously lied to get the exemption”.
“How good. Way to put the entire country at risk,” they said.
“Come on now, it’s not like Brit travellers to flout the laws of the country they’re visiting,” another commented sarcastically.
Some people say they have missed out on seeing dying loved ones in their final days or have not been able to attend funerals due to the lockdown.
“I am f****d off beyond belief,” one Reddit user said, explaining that their mum died unexpectedly during New Zealand’s Level 4 lockdown and their sister couldn’t travel home from Scotland for a funeral.
“My mum’s ashes are at my house now. What the f**k is happening!!!!! Did we not have to have a cremation? What the f**k.”
Social media users have speculated that the incident may prompt other countries to seal their borders to travellers from the UK until our outbreak is under control.
The New Zealand government has now suspended its compassionate exemption policy, which had allowed some people to break quarantine to visit a dying parent or grieve with their families, meaning no one will be able to leave isolation without a negative test from now on.
The claim that the women travelled from Auckland to Wellington, an eight-hour drive, without stopping for fuel or a toilet break even once has also been met with scepticism.
However Dr Bloomfield has reassured the public that he’s “not nervous” about the women spreading coronavirus to other people because they “did everything that was asked of them”.
He had previously cautioned New Zealanders that new cases from international arrivals were very likely to happen, particularly in those travelling from countries where coronavirus is still very active such as the UK.
“A new case is something we hoped we wouldn’t get, but it is also something we expected and planned for,” Dr Bloomfield said at a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.
The relative the women are staying with in Wellington has been placed in self-isolation while they wait on test results.
Any staff at the isolation facility who came into close contact with the cases will be stood down and tested, and Auckland International Airport is currently reviewing its CCTV footage to identify any border officials who may have come close to the women.
Australian public health officials have also been notified so they can take action with passengers who were on the same flight from the UK to Brisbane on June 7.
New Zealand has recorded 1,156 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 22 deaths. The UK has recorded 297,000 cases and 41,736 deaths.