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Does OIA evidence confirm possible Air NZ link to recent covid outbreaks?

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air nz

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An OIA response from Ministry of Health (see below, under “Addendum”) has fuelled speculation that Air NZ flight crew cannot be eliminated as the cause of the Auckland August covid-outbreak last year and the current February-Valentines Day outbreak. The sources for both outbreaks remain unknown and officially designated as “under investigation“.

The Auckland August covid-outbreak began on 11 August with four community cases detected. The first infected person – a worker at Mt Wellington Americold – became symptomatic on 31 July.

Wanaka-based phylogeneticist, Dr James Hadfield, pointed out;

Finding a recent case in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) or elsewhere on the border that matched this cluster lineage would be strong evidence for the border incursion scenario. We haven’t got any such direct evidence – but this doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

[…]

Extensive testing and contact tracing determined the earliest case found to date was an Americold coolstore worker who first showed symptoms on July 31, and the initial spread of the cluster centred around this coolstore, which imports frozen goods.

Thus, the third hypothesis is that the virus may have been imported on packaging material, where it could have survived in low temperature conditions, and then gone on to infect a worker at the coolstore.

This hypothesis is given further credence by the possible genomic link to Ecuador, since viral particles have been found in China on frozen shrimp packaging from Ecuador.

However, no shipments from Ecuador were received by the coolstore in question.

Coincidentally (?) there is also a branch of the company – Americold Logistics –  in Māngere.

Americold Logistics in Māngere is 1.7km* drive from Auckland International Airport.

In the case of the February-Valentines Day outbreak, Case B involved a worker fromLSG Sky Chefs in Māngere who worked at the laundry facility. Health officials believe she was the first to be infected but developed symptoms after her daughter and then got tested. She had not been at work since 5 February and how she became infected remains unknown. All members of staff at her place of work return negative Covid-19 testing results“.

LSG Skychefs Māngere is a 1.8km* drive from Auckland International Airport.

On 24 February – in a story titled Is Air NZ the Covid re-infection problem? Possible evidence points to national airline – this blogger mapped LSG Sky Chefs, Americold Logistics, and Auckland International Airport;

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sth auckland covid links

 

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However, there was a missing piece: the location of a hotel used by Air NZ as an isolation facility for flight crews returning from international routes. Enquiries to Air NZ and elsewhere were met with a wall of silence. Flight crew’s safety and privacy were often quoted. (Though this does not feature as a concern for other Returnees and migrant essential workers staying at publicly-listed MIQ facilities, including a MoH webpage.)

Aside from the publicly revealed isolation facilities at Grand Windsor in down Auckland’s Queen Street and Ramada Hotels at Auckland CBD and Manukau – the location of an up-till-now secret facility in Māngere was a secret.

However, in a response to an OIA request from this blogger, it can be revealed that the heretofore un-named facility is/was the Heartland Hotel at 14 Airpark Drive, Māngere;

It is unclear if Heartland Hotel is still being used by Air NZ.

On 9 February, former Newshub and RNZ journalist, Zac Fleming discovered that Air NZ flight crews had been leaving their isolation facilities at Ramada Hotel at Auckland CBD and Manukau, and the Grand Windsor on Auckland’s Queen Street, to exercise regularly out in the streets.

It is highly probable that flight crews would also have done the same when in “isolation” at Heartland Hotel in Māngere.

In an Air NZ staff bulletin to crew, it was stated that Ministry of Health guidelines permitted outside exercise activity “… for up to 90 minutes of exercise per day.”  This was confirmed in an online MoH web-document dated 24 December 2020;

Aircrew are only permitted to leave their place of self-isolation:

[…]

to do any outdoor exercise

Flight crews were not held in MIQ for fourteen days. Rather, they were held in isolation for 48 hours and allowed back into the community after just one negative covid test.

Though as University of Otago Medical School epidemiologist, Sir David Skegg, warned;

Of course a single negative test does not prove that a person is not infected, especially early in the course of their illness.”

Mapping all four facilities, LSG Sky Chefs, Americold Logistics,  Auckland International Airport, and Heartland Hotel;

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Heartland Hotel, at 14 Airpark Drive, Māngere, is 3.5kms* from Auckland International Airport.

As this blogger suggested on 24 February – The close proximity of Americold to Auckland International Airport could be considered a coincidence.

But add LSG Skychefs to Americold and the International Airport – and there’s a pattern.

The close proximity of Heartland Hotel is one of the final two missing pieces;

Missing Piece 1: Is/was there a second Air New Zealand Isolation facility  within the LSG Skychefs – Americold – Auckland International Airport precinct? What was it’s location? And if it did exist; did isolating Air NZ flight crew members take their exercise outside the facility “as per the MoH guidelines you will be able to leave the hotel for up to 90 minutes of exercise per day”?

Missing Piece 2: Did an employee from Americold Mt Wellington (where covid infections were detected) have direct contact with the Māngere Branch, thereby placing themself at “Ground Zero”?

This blogger contends that a cascading series of events has resulted in returning Air NZ flight crew(s) initiating both the August Auckland and Valentines Day outbreaks:

  1. Air NZ flight crews isolate for only 48 hours instead of two weeks, even though they are returning from high-risk destinations such as Los Angeles, Asia, etc.
  2. Until recently, returned Air NZ flight crews were permitted to leave isolation to exercise (ie; jogging, walking, etc) out on the streets. A jog by an “isolating” flight crew member around Māngere is not only conceivable but likely.
  3. Air NZ flight crews are permitted to leave isolation after 48 hours after one negative covid test – despite common knowledge that false negatives are common.
  4. Air NZ management have cut flight staff, thereby putting pressure on remaining employees to isolate for only two days, as well as being forced to work shifts on “quarantine flights”.

There has been mounting pressure on this government for South Aucklanders (Manukau, Māngere, etc)  to be given priority for vaccination;

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why?

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– but no one has asked the obvious question: Why is it necessary to vaccinate South Aucklanders first?

What has made South Auckland a target-zone for new covid outbreaks?

As an observant ‘Daily Blog’ reader pointed out; these outbreaks do not seem to be happening in Wellington, Rotorua, or Christchurch, where MIQ facilities also exist (but not Air NZ isolation facilities);

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pennywise - air new zealand - covid19

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Genomic sequencing has eliminated MIQ facilities as being the source for the two recent outbreaks.

Yet, the virus had to enter Aotearoa New Zealand by some means. It didn’t arrive here by ‘spontaneous creation’.

Which leaves our national air carrier. And as this map shows;

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four facilities - a coincidence?

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– it cannot be a coincidence that all areas of interest are in close proximity.

Air NZ is allowed to operate because it is considered a critical infrastructure-service. It has less stringent isolation/quarantine requirements than any other regime operating. As the Ministry of Health explicitly outlined why Air NZ receives preferential treatment;

Because of the importance of maintaining international air routes, New Zealand-based international air crew are mostly exempt from a 14 day isolation or quarantine period as long as they meet certain conditions – both in flight and during layovers…

It would also explain why the Ministry of Health refused point-blank to disclose answers to these two questions I put to them;

1. How many flight crew personnel have contracted covid19?
 
2. Are any flight crews currently infected by covid?

Their response;

“This part of your request is withheld under section 9(2)(b)(ii) as the release of this information would likely unreasonably prejudice the commercial position of the person or company who supplied the information.”

– makes no sense. It is unclear how crew infection rates could “unreasonably prejudice the commercial position”  of Air NZ.

But it makes total sense if the number of returning flight crews showing covid infections has increased significantly. That is not information which Air NZ management or the majority-shareholder – the government – would want in the public domain.

Especially if – as it seems likely – some returning infected flight crews were either not fully isolating (going out for exercises, jogging, walks, etc) – or their negative test results are worthless.

The sooner all Air NZ flight crews are vaccinated, the better for the entire country.

Because what other transmission routes could there be except Air New Zealand.

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* Distances calculated via Google Maps

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Postscript:

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New case of Covid-19 found in airline crew member

7.44PM, 7 March 2021, RNZ

A new case of Covid-19 has been identified in an airline crew member during routine surveillance testing

In a statement this evening, the Ministry of Health said the crew member had returned to New Zealand from Japan on 28 February and had initially returned a negative test result [my emphasis].

The person has since returned a positive test result today, after a swab taken yesterday during routine surveillance testing.

They have moved into Auckland’s quarantine facility today.

The individual’s three household family members have already been tested today and the results are all negative.

Fourteen other air crew who were on the same flight are being contacted, isolated and retested.

The MoH said a public health assessment showed there was low risk to the public, as Auckland was at alert level three during the time the case was back in New Zealand.

There is currently one location of interest – the Auckland Airport Countdown on 3 March between 12.07pm and 1.22pm.

Anyone who was at the store at the same time has been asked to monitor their health for the next ten days and get tested if symptoms arise.

Results from genome sequencing are expected on Tuesday and will help rule out any local transmission.

The new case comes after New Zealand marked a full week with no community cases, following an outbreak in South Auckland.

Auckland moved out of alert level three at 6am today and is currently operating under alert level two.

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Let’s do the sums:

Returned to Aotearoa New Zealand: 28 February

Covid tested & result: negative

Released after MoH mandated 48 hours in Isolation: 2 March

Visited: 3 March, Auckland Airport Countdown between 12.07pm and 1.22pm

Re-tested: 6 March

Covid test result: 7 March: positive

That’s five days out in the public, including a busy supermarket.

Covid testing picked up this case. How many did we miss?

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Addendum:

Ministry of Health OIA Response in full:

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oia response to ministry of health

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References

NZ Herald: Covid 19 coronavirus – Why we may never know where Auckland cluster originated

Newsroom: Mapping the Valentine’s Day cluster, case by case

MoH: COVID-19 – Source of cases – Cluster details

RNZ: Covid-19 – New cases push New Zealand into resurgence plan

NZ Herald: Coronavirus Covid 19 – The three theories for August’s Auckland outbreak

RNZ: Covid-19 February cluster – Case profiles

Stuff media: Covid-19 – A guide to managed isolation hotels, and what to do if things go wrong

MIQ:  Facility locations

Newshub: Coronavirus – Air NZ crews allowed to leave quarantine for exercise in Auckland CBD

MoH: Requirements for aircrew ordinarily resident in New Zealand to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection and transmission

Newsroom: Questions raised over international aircrew rules

ODT: Air NZ crews hoping to stall redundancies

Newshub: Air New Zealand crew claim they’re being ‘forced’ to work on COVID-19 quarantine flights

MoH: COVID-19 – Aviation sector

RNZ: Phil Goff pushes for south Auckland priority in Covid-19 vaccine roll-out

RNZ: Pressure mounts to prioritise vaccines for South Auckland

Stuff media: Vaccinate south Auckland first – you just can’t argue with this truly good idea

TVNZ News: Prioritising Covid vaccine for South Aucklanders will ‘protect the whole of NZ’ – Pasifika medical official

The Daily Blog: Pennywise

MoH: COVID-19 – Aviation sector

RNZ: New case of Covid-19 found in airline crew member

Additional

The Spinoff: The ultimate guide to New Zealand quarantine and managed isolation hotels

Previous related blogposts

Life in Level 1: Reinfection – Labour’s kryptonite

Life in Level 2: The Curious Case of the Very Invisible Virus

Is Air NZ the Covid re-infection problem? Possible evidence points to national airline

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Air NZ - the daily blog - Slane - cartoon

Acknowledgement: Chris Slane

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This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 8 March 2021.

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= fs =

Is Air NZ the Covid re-infection problem? Possible evidence points to national airline

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A shroud of secrecy surrounds isolation facilities used by Air New Zealand international flight crews.  Until recently, Aucklanders were not even aware that Air NZ had begun to use hotels in the CBD to isolate returning flight crews.

Furthermore, it was revealed that returning Air NZ were leaving their rooms to exercise outside of their isolation CBD hotels by jogging through Auckland’s busy central-city streets,

Newshub journalist, and formerly with Radio NZ, Zac Fleming, uncovered the story;

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air nz flight crew isolating in auckland cbd

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As reported by Zac Fleming;

Air crew were originally staying at the Ramada Hotel at Auckland CBD and Manukau, but switched to the Grand Windsor on Auckland’s Queen Street on Friday.

After the switch, they were told by Air New Zealand via a staff bulletin: “As per the MoH guidelines you will be able to leave the hotel for up to 90 minutes of exercise per day.”

This means the crew returning from the US over the weekend could have checked into the Grand Windsor and then left and gone for a run through the middle of downtown Auckland.

It would not be the first time returning flight crews had been given permission  to exercise outside their isolation facilities.

From an Air New Zealand web-page dated 19 August 2020, flight crews were allowed to venture out for up to an hour each day in several “medium risk” overseas cities;

Air New Zealand has worked closely with Ministry of Health officials in implementing the measures in place today. High, medium or low risk destinations are set by the Ministry of Health and this risk matrix is reviewed regularly. Measures include:

[…]

For medium risk layovers, including Narita, Hong Kong, Shanghai

[…]

    • Air crew isolate in hotels, limiting trips outside to 1hr per 24-hour period

In a web page document dated 24 December 2020 – and which is still publicly visible – the Ministry of Health issued these guidelines for returning aircrew;.

Aircrew are only permitted to leave their place of self-isolation:

[…]

• to do any outdoor exercise (except at any shared exercise facility, such as a swimming pool

[…]

Aircrew are not permitted to leave their place of self-isolation for anything other than the reasons described above. Any time aircrew leave their place of self-isolation for these reasons, they must maintain physical distancing and wear PP Eat all times.

Moh: Requirements for air crew ordinarily resident in New Zealand to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection and transmission (24 December 2020)

Additional requirements for aircrew who travel internationally on designated ‘higher-risk’routes and for pilots undergoing flight simulator training in Australia

[…]

4. Aircrew are only permitted to leave their place of self-isolation:

[…]

• to do any outdoor exercise (except at any shared exercise facility, such as a swimming pool)

[…]

Aircrew are not permitted to leave their place of self-isolation for anything other than the reasons described above. Any time aircrew leave their place of self-isolation for these reasons, they must maintain physical distancing and wear PPE at all times.

The guidelines are complex, attempting to cater for every possible situation flight crews will experience overseas.

And it was reported on 22 January, this year;

Until Monday [January 22], [Air New Zealand] aircrew had the choice to self-isolate at home in New Zealand.

TVNZ has reported that every week about 80 pilots and cabin crew on high-risk flights are now being driven to a hotel where a private healthcare team tests them for Covid-19.

If they test negative, they can leave after 48 hours.

[…]

“We’re not going to have security on the door. We do trust the airlines to follow the rules,” Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins told 1 News.

[…]

The ministry said the hotel where the aircrew stay, which they would not name or identify its whereabouts, is not managed isolation/quarantine (MIQ) facility.

However, aircrew are required to follow isolation requirements, which includes staying in their rooms until the result of their test is available. Meals are delivered to their rooms during this time and they are permitted to exercise outside provided they maintain social distancing and wear personal protective equipment (PPE).

[…]

1 News said it had been told some cabin crew were suspected of breaking self-isolation at home and [Minister Chris] Hipkins was aware of the claims.

“It’s difficult to respond to anecdotes rather than actual evidence that people haven’t been following the rules,” he said.

It was then first revealed on 9 February this year that returning flight crews had switched from a Manukau isolation hotel, to the Grand Windsor in down Auckland’s Queen Street;

Air New Zealand crew were allowed to leave a quarantine hotel to exercise on the streets of Auckland’s CBD for nearly three weeks, Newshub can reveal.

Up until three weeks ago, the airline’s crew could isolate at home for 48 hours after an overseas trip, but on January 18 it became mandatory for crews who had been to the United States to isolate in hotels – because it’s deemed a high-risk country.

Despite the ‘high-risk’, Ministry of Health guidelines were still allowing them to leave their hotel to exercise for up to 90 minutes a day.

The Ministry of Health says it was only aware of and gave guidance for Air New Zealand staff to leave a hotel in Manukau to exercise, and its guidelines did not allow for staff to leave a CBD hotel to exercise.

Air crew were originally staying at the Ramada Hotel at Auckland CBD and Manukau, but switched to the Grand Windsor on Auckland’s Queen Street on Friday.

After the switch, they were told by Air New Zealand via a staff bulletin: “As per the MoH guidelines you will be able to leave the hotel for up to 90 minutes of exercise per day.”

This means the crew returning from the US over the weekend could have checked into the Grand Windsor and then left and gone for a run through the middle of downtown Auckland.

In response, the airline’s attitude to the problem was;

AirNZ does not believe there was a problem in crew having been allowed to leave the Ramada for three weeks between January 18 and February 5.

But there clearly is a problem.

In March last year,  Aotearoa New Zealand moved from Level Alert 2  to Level Alert 4 within four days. On 11.59pm on 25 March, the country was under a State of Emergency.

However, nature and the viruses it produces wait for no-one and our rules do not not apply. On the same day Aotearoa New Zealand moved to Level Alert 2 on 21 March, a wedding and reception at Bluff was held the same day. An Air NZ flight crewmember attended – a person infected with covid19.

Air NZ issued a comment at the time;

“Air New Zealand’s employee, as all operating cabin crew, adhered to the Ministry of Health’s guidance which includes hygiene and PPE measures.”

The “Bluff Cluster“, as it became known, resulted in 98 people becoming infected, including one fatality. (Note: this blogger does not attribute any blame to the AirNZ flight crew member, who was following rules at the time. The entire country had yet to learn the lesson that covid19 was about to teach us.)

Eight months later, another Air NZ flight crew member was found to be infected;

Air New Zealand is investigating after one of its crew members tested positive for Covid-19 in China.

The staff member tested negative to the virus in New Zealand on November 18 but on arrival in Shanghai on November 22 returned a positive test.

Air New Zealand said the person was well and had no symptoms of Covid-19 – all other crew have returned negative results.

Other cases followed;

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By 22 April, Air NZ confirmed that thirty of it’s workers had been infected with the virus.

The cry for more stringent  testing and isolation protocols came from Air NZ staff themselves;

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Covid-19 testing, isolation needs urgent attention – Air NZ staff

19 August 2020

Air New Zealand staff say there are a multitude of loopholes in the airline’s border controls – and Covid-19 testing and isolation requirements need urgent attention.

The Health Minister today met with Air New Zealand to discuss ways to tighten Covid-19 restrictions, after saying he was concerned with their procedures.

While returning travellers must undergo strict 14-day isolation requirements, the air crews bringing them home are largely exempt.

One person working on Air New Zealand’s international flights told Checkpoint there had been unease for sometime among crews about the current rules, which mean only those returning from America are required to self-isolate, have a Covid-19 test on day two and continue to self-isolate until that test comes back negative.

“I think there’s a multitude of loopholes, and some of them are due to the way the airline operates but also unfortunately, I believe that the loopholes and the vulnerabilities at the border, are due to the way things have been designed by Ministry of Health rules.”

He recently returned from a long haul flight which was not to America, so he is not required to self isolate.

“However, I’m doing that, because… it’s the right thing to do. So I am managing the quarantine at home.

“But many crew have difficulty with that, they might have flatmates or they might have the situation so that they cannot physically isolate at home without putting people at risk.”

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Air NZ crew remain at risk while they are not required to isolate for 14 days, as are all other Returnees and essential workers permitted to enter the country. Air NZ management state that there are not sufficient crew to staff aircraft  if they were isolated for the full two weeks.

Instead, if air crew are returning from high-risk destinations such as Los Angeles, they are required to self-isolate in a hotel for only 48 hours;

One staff member has told Newshub the airline is putting “profit before people” and staff are “afraid” as a result.

[…]

Air NZ crew returning to Aotearoa have to enter managed isolation, just like the passengers they are transporting, but are allowed to leave if they return a negative test after 48 hours.

However, crew on the domestic MIQ flights are only required to wear standard facemasks, and aren’t isolated or tested for the virus once they finish their shift.

Once the MIQ flight is over, the domestic crew is then stood down for a period of 48 hours.

Air NZ’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Ben Johnston confirmed that while the crew aren’t allowed to work in the air for that period, they are free to do what they want.

However, any shortage of air crew can be laid fairly and squarely at the feet of Air NZ management:

Around 380 of the cabin crew on the 787s are being made redundant...

“There are people in the quarantine facilities right now so pretty much on the day they get out of that two week quarantine will then be made redundant, so this is the last two weeks of their job at Air New Zealand is sitting inside a hotel waiting to see if they’ve got Covid.”

This has impacted on other higher-risk Air NZ flights requiring volunteer crews;

Some of those hotels are located in Rotorua, Wellington or Christchurch and to get to them, the returnees fly out of Auckland on flights including specially chartered Air New Zealand turboprop services.

Despite working alongside the same inbound international passengers as their long-haul colleagues, the crew on the turboprop domestic flights aren’t protected by the same restrictions or protocols as those who work on flights from overseas.

Air NZ crew returning to Aotearoa have to enter managed isolation, just like the passengers they are transporting, but are allowed to leave if they return a negative test after 48 hours.

However, crew on the domestic MIQ flights are only required to wear standard facemasks, and aren’t isolated or tested for the virus once they finish their shift.

[…]

The MIQ flights were originally staffed on a voluntary basis. But due to the health risks and the likelihood of earning less money, many Air NZ staff have declined to work on the special flights.

[…]

In an email to staff that has been seen by Newshub, Air NZ said the reason the flights would now be rostered like any other flight was because they were running out of volunteers.

“While we have always been supportive of these flights being crewed on a volunteer basis, the challenge we now have with only having a limited amount of crew volunteering, means that potentially some of these crew would lose overnight duties and the associated allowances,” the email reads.

However there have also been alleged instances of staff breaches of strict covid protocols;

Air New Zealand says it’s investigating after allegations a flight attendant breached Level 3 lockdown to fly as a passenger from Auckland to Wellington.

A former Air New Zealand flight attendant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told 1 NEWS multiple complaints have been made to the airline after a flight attendant allegedly flew from Auckland to Wellington on August 15th to visit a friend.

Level 3 rules stipulate people leaving Auckland should only be doing so under very specific circumstances, for example doing essential work, or returning home.

The former flight attendant said she and some current staff are “disgusted” by the alleged behaviour.

“She had disclosed to operating crew on the flight NZ691 on 15 August that she was flying down to operate a duty however the crew checked the passenger manifest and noticed she was on leisure travel.”

“I am disgusted at this abuse of privilege at putting others at risk when many Aucklanders and New Zealanders are working so hard to abide by lockdown.”

“It makes me so sad as I know many fellow crew who have lost their job and would never even consider abusing power as she has and putting our national carriers reputation at a huge risk.”

Bearing in mind that isolation for returning air crews is not as lengthy as other Returnees, and essential workers permitted to enter the country, it came as a shock that Air NZ had changed it’s isolation facility from Manukau to central Auckland;

Some Air New Zealand crew members arriving back in New Zealand are isolating at Auckland’s Hotel Grand Windsor [on Queen Street, downtown Auckland], with taxpayers footing the bill.

[…]

New Zealand-based aircrew arriving into the country from “higher risk” Covid-19 destinations as part of their work duties are required to enter 48 hours’ self-isolation at a hotel. They must return a negative test before they can leave isolation.

San Francisco and Los Angeles are currently classed as “higher risk” routes, while deaths from Covid-19 in the US exceed 450,000.

Around 70 pilots and 18 cabin crew return each week from these destinations, an Air New Zealand spokeswoman said.

[…]

Air New Zealand began using this facility on February 5 as its previous hotel couldn’t accommodate the number of crew required to isolate under new health guidelines.

Meanwhile, changes have been made after it was revealed by Newshub that Air New Zealand crew were able to leave an isolation hotel to exercise on the streets of Auckland’s CBD for almost three weeks.

The guidance given to crew has since been clarified, with the crew advised to stay inside and spare rooms at the Grand Windsor being transformed into gyms.

The Ministry of Health was unaware of the  change in isolation facilities until the media began asking questions;

Newshub can reveal the Ministry of Health (MoH) had no idea our highest-risk airline crew had stayed at a hotel in the middle of Auckland’s CBD until we reported it last week.

Air New Zealand didn’t tell the Ministry the high-risk crew were there – so the Ministry thought they were staying in Manukau and near the airport.

[…]

“That clearly imposes risk of transmission,” University of Otago epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker told Newshub.

[…]

“This current system seems to have these major weaknesses in terms of people being allowed out to exercise during that period,” [Dr Michael Baker] says.

“We need them to keep flying so we’re working very closely with them to make sure they can keep flying,” Hipkins adds.

As pointed out above, Air NZ’s isolation hotel was the Ramada. A second hotel remains un-named, and its location unknown. In an email to this blogger on 17 February, Air NZ Communications (public relations) confirmed;

Air New Zealand aircrew were previously using two hotels in Manukau to complete hotel self-isolation after returning from high risk destinations such as Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Attempts by this blogger to uncover the name  of the other airport have been unsuccessful, with strong secrecy surrounding it’s location. The oft-quoted reason has been fears that isolation hotels used by airlines would be harassed by a mob or that the privacy of airline crews somehow threatened. However this has not been the case of the new isolation facility at Hotel Grand Windsor in Auckland CBD. Nor has this been “an issue” for Returnees and essential workers granted entry visas.

In the same email, the AirNZ Comms spokesperson said;

Under the MoH guidance our crew completing hotel self-isolation after returning from a high-risk destination are unable to leave the hotel premises to exercise. Instead, aircrew have been provided an area within the hotel to get fresh air and complete low impact exercise – they are required to book the space to ensure they can achieve physical distancing and wear masks while they exercise.

Air New Zealand aircrew were previously using two hotels in Manukau to complete hotel self-isolation after returning from high risk destinations such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. Under the previous health order aircrew were permitted to leave hotel premises for a short period to exercise provided they wore a mask and physically distanced.

Air NZ flight crew are no longer permitted to leave their isolation facility.

As at publication of this story, an email to Minister Chris Hipkins has not received a response (aside from an automated acknowledgement). In the email, this blogger requested the location of any isolation facility/ies used by Air NZ.

Why is the location of Air NZ’s isolation facilities – both past and current – a matter of interest?

The recent cluster of covid19 centers around a worker from LSG Sky Chefs, a company situated in Māngere, not far from Auckland International Airport.

The Auckland August Cluster, last year, was an outbreak of covid19 involving a worker from Americold in Mt Wellington. There is an Americold branch in Māngere near the Auckland Airport. A series of maps puts all three into context;

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Americold:

Americold

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LSG Skychefs

2 - Americold - LSG Skychefs

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And Auckland International Airport:

3 - Americold - LSG Skychefs - Akld Intl Airport

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The close proximity of Americold to Auckland International Airport could be considered a coincidence.

But add LSG Skychefs to Americold and the International Airport – and there’s a pattern.

The only two missing pieces remain;

Missing Piece 1: Is/was there a second Air New Zealand Isolation facility  within the LSG Skychefs – Americold – Auckland International Airport precinct? What was it’s location? And if it did exist; did isolating Air NZ flight crew members take their exercise outside the facility “as per the MoH guidelines you will be able to leave the hotel for up to 90 minutes of exercise per day”?

Missing Piece 2: Did an employee from Americold Mt Wellington (where covid infections were detected) have direct contact with the Māngere Branch, thereby placing themself at “Ground Zero”?

What we do know is that the “index case” of the Auckland August Cluster was a  “person in their 50s who lives in South Auckland”, according to MoH.

Americold NZ’s Managing Director, Richard Winnall, insisted that the “Index Case” man’s position at the company meant he did not leave the office and he had not been in contact with employees at any of the three other local branches in Auckland, according to an ODT report.

And yet, “Index Case” contracted the virus from someone.

There has been suggestion that the strain of covid (B.1.1.7) detected in the worker at LSG Skychefs may have been infected by a Returnee who had a similar strain and passed through a MIQ facility in December last year. Whilst Dr Bloomfield did not outright dismiss the possibility, he thought it unlikely;

“Whether there was a potential link from that case through one of the guests who may have left through to our cases that we found on the weekend seems very unlikely because of the time period and what would need to have happened to create that epidemiological link while at the same time we were finding no other cases out in the community.”

Instead, Dr Bloomfield suggested;

“The airport precinct seems the most likely route of infection of our original case and we just need to get to the bottom of how she may have been exposed… “

Though the worker was near the “airport precinct”, she apparently had no direct proximity with crew, Returnees, or other travellers;

The LSG Sky Chefs employee works in a team of nine in the company’s Māngere catering and laundry facility.

She is responsible for washing and ironing linen, napkins, blankets and sheets from incoming flights.

Despite earlier suggestions, it has been clarified the woman does not handle international aircrew’s uniforms. She also has no face-to-face contact with crew or travellers, nor access to the airport.

Which, if true, would suggest that if the worker did not place herself into a risky situation – then someone else was in proximity to her.

It is a fact that Air NZ flight crew are not required to isolate for 14 days as are Returnees, sports people, entertainers, or essential workers. They are only required to “return a negative test after 48 hours”.

University of Otago Medical School epidemiologist, Sir David Skegg, has questioned reliance on the 48 hour test;

Of course a single negative test does not prove that a person is not infected, especially early in the course of their illness.”

Dr Ashley Bloomfield also admitted that tersting was not 100% reliable;

“First of all because the tests do have a false negative rate of somewhere around 20 to 30 percent but also because it’s part of our departure planning for people to confirm that they don’t have the virus.”

False negative results have been reported on the Ministry of Health website. On 20 September last year;’

The second imported case reported today is a man in his 20s who arrived from India via Singapore on September 12. He returned a negative test for COVID-19 around day 3 of his stay in managed isolation at the Grand Millennium. The man was moved to the Auckland quarantine facility as a close contact of a confirmed case, retested, and has returned a positive result. 

Had this man been an Air NZ flight crew member, he would have been tested on Day Two of his isolation. If a negative result returned, as above, he would have been allowed to return to the community.

It would be interesting to know how many false negative returns are made after Day Three of Returnees in MIQ.

On the latest LSG Sky Chefs cluster,  Sir David Skeggs suggested;

“I think the most likely thing, and obviously this is speculation, is that this woman was infected by one of her colleagues at work who has been going airside … and perhaps was in contact with someone who in transit who was infectious but wouldn’t have been tested here in New Zealand.

“But, of course, if it was someone passing through the airport, we may never find a link with the original case.”

He added;

“I don’t think we should see this as a surprise, I’ve been saying this all along. There will be more lockdowns in 2021 I’m afraid.” 

The last two cases have proven Sir David correct. But more troubling is that the outbreaks all seem to involve Auckland International Airport directly or (as in Americold’s case) indirectly.

The government’s decision to exclude AirNZ from quarantining airflight crews for the full 14 days – which Dr Bloomfield has described as “The Gold Standard” – seems to fly in the face of the Ministry’s own pronouncements.

It is obvious that Air NZ has been allowed to operate withouit the restrictions faced by other industries. Especially those industries clamouring to bring essential workers into the country.

It should be remembered that Air NZ is currently 52% owned by the government. There would be disastrous repercussions if it collapsed because it could no longer operate with even minimum profits.

Executive Director of Board of Airline Representatives New Zealand (BARNZ), Justin Tighe-Umbers, may have been speaking on behalf of the government when he made it clear where his priorities lay;

Executive director Justin Tighe-Umbers says New Zealanders shouldn’t be fearful of the risk from air crew, but should be worried about the economy.

“They should be worried about the economic shock if airlines pull out of the country should conditions become too stringent for them to operate.”

The Ministry of Health was even more explicit in government support for unrestricted air travel;

Because of the importance of maintaining international air routes, New Zealand-based international air crew are mostly exempt from a 14 day isolation or quarantine period as long as they meet certain conditions – both in flight and during layovers

Unfortunatelty, Air NZ’s privileged position  to avoid full quarantine for it’s flightcrews – even as it made hundreds of it’s staff redundant – may be a cost borne by the rest of this country’s businesses and workers who lose their jobs.

Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins may have been uncannily prescient last year when he said;

“I’m meeting with Air New Zealand today to make sure that that’s as tight as a drum. I’m not 100 per cent convinced that it is at the moment. I’m going to be absolutely boring into that. There’s no time for rest here. I’ve been doing this job for seven weeks. Every single day I’ve woken up thinking about Covid-19.”

If the next outbreak of covid19 is in the same area as Auckland International Airport, Americold, and LSG Sky Chefs, the the conclusion will be inevitable: there is a gap in our borders.

A gap big enough to fly an airplane through. A plane with a koru on it’s tail.

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Additional Notes

COVID-19: Aviation sector

12 Feb (page up-dated 13 Feb)

The COVID-19 Public Health Response (Required Testing) Order 2020 requires routine testing of specified aviation workers for COVID-19.

You are required to continue testing once every 7 days if you are:

    • Aircrew members

You are required to continue testing once every 14 days if you are:

    • Persons who spend more than 15 minutes in enclosed spaces on board aircraft that arrives from location outside New Zealand
    • Airside government officials including (without limitation) personnel from Immigration New Zealand, New Zealand Customs Service, Aviation Security Service, or Ministry for Primary Industry
    • Airside district health board workers
    • Airside retail, food, and beverage workers
    • Airside workers handling baggage trolleys used by international arriving or international transiting passengers
    • Airside airline workers who interact with passengers
    • Airside airport workers who interact with passengers
    • Airside cleaning workers
    • All landside workers who interact with international arriving or international transiting passengers

Workers can be exempt if an aircraft has not arrived at the affected airport from a location outside New Zealand for a period of at least 14 consecutive days. 

[…]

Because of the importance of maintaining international air routes, New Zealand-based international air crew are mostly exempt from a 14 day isolation or quarantine period as long as they meet certain conditions – both in flight and during layovers.

The Minister of Health has agreed that this exemption to the Air Border Order now includes non-operating air crew returning to New Zealand on a flight after performing in-flight duties (repositioning crew).

[…]

The Director-General has now designated Los Angeles and San Francisco as higher risk routes.  This designation is available on the New Zealand Gazette website

[…]

Because of the importance of maintaining international air routes, New Zealand-based international air crew are mostly exempt from a 14 day isolation or quarantine period as long as they meet certain conditions – both in flight and during layovers.

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References

Newshub:  Coronavirus – Air NZ crews allowed to leave quarantine for exercise in Auckland CBD

Newshub: Ministry of Health had no idea Air NZ’s highest-risk crew were staying in Auckland CBD hotel

Air New Zealand: Air New Zealand provides clarity on safety precautions for staff

MoH: Requirements for aircrew ordinarily resident in New Zealand to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection and transmission

NZ Herald: Covid 19 coronavirus – International Air New Zealand aircrew must now isolate in hotels

Stuff media: Coronavirus – Air NZ steward linked to Bluff wedding cluster ‘deeply upset’

Scoop media: Nation Steps Up To COVID-19 Alert Level 2

RNZ: Coronavirus – Covid-19 updates in NZ and around the world on 25 March

NZ Herald: Covid 19 coronavirus: -Air NZ steward ‘deeply upset’ by Bluff coronavirus outbreak

Ministry of Health: COVID-19 – Source of cases – Cluster Details

Stuff media: Covid-19 – Air New Zealand crew isolating after testing positive in China

Newshub:  COVID-19 – Air New Zealand crew member who tested positive visited six Auckland shops

NZ Herald: Covid 19 coronavirus – Eight Air New Zealand staff test positive for the virus

NZ Herald: Air New Zealand air crew member tests positive for Covid-19

ODT: Air NZ crews hoping to stall redundancies

RNZ:  Covid-19 testing, isolation needs urgent attention – Air NZ staff

Stuff media: Transit passengers and air crew are considered possible Covid-19 sources. How are they kept safe?

Newshub: Air New Zealand crew claim they’re being ‘forced’ to work on COVID-19 quarantine flights

RNZ: Covid-19 – Anxious wait for Air NZ staff in isolation

TVNZ: Air NZ investigating allegations of lockdown breach by flight attendant

NZ  Herald: Covid 19 coronavirus – Air NZ crew isolation arrangement ‘under review’

Newshub: Ministry of Health had no idea Air NZ’s highest-risk crew were staying in Auckland CBD hotel

ODT: Covid 19 – Money company, cool store at centre of outbreak

Stuff media: Covid-19 – Kiwis face months-long wait to come home as border controls are tightened

RNZ: Checkpoint – Potential Covid-19 link to MIQ weeks ago highly unlikely – officials (audio link)

RNZ: Covid-19 – LSG Sky Chefs employees ‘following all the rules’ – union

MoH: COVID-19 – Aviation sector

Wikipedia: Index Case

MoH: 4 cases of COVID-19 with unknown source

Newsroom: Questions raised over international aircrew rules

MoH: 4 new cases of COVID-19

ODT: ‘There will be more lockdowns’: Otago expert unsurprised by outbreak

MoH: COVID-19 media update, 1 July (transcript)

Air New Zealand: Frequently Asked Questions – Who owns Air New Zealand?

TVNZ: Air NZ investigating allegations of lockdown breach by flight attendant

NZ Herald: Covid 19 coronavirus – Health Minister Chris Hipkins’ concerns over airline crew coming through the border; new details of Rydges hotel case

MoH: COVID-19 – Aviation sector

Additional

The Spinoff: The ultimate guide to New Zealand quarantine and managed isolation hotels

Stuff media: Covid-19 – A guide to managed isolation hotels, and what to do if things go wrong

MIQ:  Facility locations

NZ Herald:  Auckland students fly out to Otago despite lockdown

Previous related blogposts

Life in Level 1: Reinfection – Labour’s kryptonite

Life in Level 2: The Curious Case of the Very Invisible Virus

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. air nz covid Acknowledgement: Guy Body

This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 24 February 2021.

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