Shambolic: Governments Covid 19 self-isolation trial described as train wreck

A Kiwi knight and a professional sailor talk to Jane Phare about their experience in the Government’s “shambolic” self-managed isolation trial.

Sir Ian Taylor and an Auckland professional sailor are free-angry-men today after spending the past 10 days as part of the Government’s self-isolation trial for 150 business travellers, an experience they describe as shambolic, disorganised and confusing.

Taylor and the sailor *Terry, who does not want to be identified for business reasons, were part of a trial conducted by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Enterprise (MBIE) and the Ministry of Health. The two men say instructions were contradictory, test results didn’t turn up and they received conflicting messages from different Government departments.

“It is just shambolic,” Taylor says.

“Fawlty Towers is better organised,” says Terry, who is still fuming over what he regards as a threatening official email he received while isolating in his home after returning from competing in a sailing regatta in Europe.

The telling off was because he drove to a Covid-19 testing station on day six of his isolation after receiving a text from the ministry. The text instructed him to get a nasopharyngeal swab (a PCR nasal test) and included a QR code with instructions to present it when he got to the front of the queue.

Both Taylor and Terry had done Government-provided Covid-19 saliva tests on day three and day five but neither received the results back. Because of that, Terry assumed the Government had abandoned that system after reading about issues with it in the news.

“I thought they’d had a problem with the saliva test.”

He searched for a phone number in the information pack but there was none. The email address gave an automated message saying there would be a delay in replying. So he drove in his car to a testing station near his home, while wearing a mask. He says a woman scanned his QR code and acknowledged him as part of the home isolation trial.

“I got the result back the next morning. That’s the only test result I’ve had back since I’ve been in home isolation,” he told the Herald on day nine of his stay.

But he later got an email telling him off for leaving his self-isolation accommodation, saying he had breached the conditions he had agreed to when entering the self-isolation pilot. The letter warned there were “associated offences and penalties for non-compliance”. The letter also pointed out that “Covid-19 spreads from person to person”.

The letter left Terry furious and he fired back a you’re-kidding-me response. “I told them not to threaten me. I figure that I’m obeying all of the rules. If they want to go down that road and send the police to my front door, I’ll turn on my camera and put it on YouTube about how f***ing stupid so much of this is. They’re treating me like an idiot. Of course I know Covid spreads from person to person.”

Taylor also received the same text asking him to have a PCR test done, telling him to present the QR code when he reached the front of the queue. The text told him to have a test on November 15 at 2.08am.

“That’s what it said. Nothing else. So I thought ‘I’m not going in at 2am,'” Taylor says.

Both he and Taylor say other instructions in the information packs were conflicting. The packs were waiting at their accommodation on arrival, Taylor in a Herne Bay townhouse lent by an Auckland businessman as part of the #151 Off the Bench trial, and Terry in his own home after his wife moved out.

Taylor’s instructions said he had to isolate for 14 days on one piece of paper, and 10 days on another. He queried the discrepancy with MBIE and two days later he received confirmation he needed to stay for 14 days. But today he was released after 10 days.

In Terry’s pack, one instruction about the Covid-19 saliva testing kits said to keep the saliva at room temperature and out of the sun. Another instruction said to keep it in the fridge. In the end it didn’t matter because he never got the results of either test until he queried their whereabouts on day 10 when he was ready to be released.

Both men were instructed to get another PCR test on day nine. The same driver picked them up in a mini van, separately, to take them for the test. Yet the following day (day 10), both men got an email saying they had failed to turn up for the tests.

Ironically, Terry got an email at 12.02pm yesterday (day 10) to say his PCR test was negative. One minute later he got another email to say he had failed to have his day nine PCR test.

“They picked me up yesterday and took me to do the test. Now they’re saying that I didn’t do it,” he told the Herald.

Taylor received a similar email to say he too had failed to have the test.

Trial is a 'train wreck'

“I am absolutely gobsmacked by the incompetence here. It really is a train wreck.”

Taylor was left angry and disillusioned at the disorganisation and the Government’s refusal to back Kiwi technology that he says would have helped in the trial.

As an example Taylor says he left a Rako Science saliva test outside his door at 8am on day nine. And he did a Covid-19 test using the Kiwi-developed MicroGEM Spitfire equipment which returned a negative result in 27 minutes. He also did a rapid antigen test left over from his trip to the US where he used them daily in his hotel room.

“It seems I might have brought them in illegally from the States because they’re banned (in NZ) at the moment,” he says. “I had a negative result in 15 minutes. And Rako Science’s result came back negative (from the lab) before the driver turned up at lunchtime to pick me up.”

The Government used a locating system which required someone to call Taylor and Terry at random times to check they were home, verifying their photo identity and whereabouts using an app. But as part of Taylor’s #151 trial he wore a geo watch 24/7 which constantly showed his whereabouts. He inadvertently put that security system to the test when he was taken for his PCR test, forgetting to tell his team he was leaving the house. He got a “please explain” call from Matrix Security when he was in the van.

Taylor’s concern now is that the trial will do little to help thousands of Kiwis to come home by Christmas after the Government indicated it won’t be moving quickly to change the overburdened MIQ system.

“What is happening here where stateless people aren’t able to come here?”

He’s challenged the Government to let his #151 team, headed by the Auckland Unlimited cross sector border group, to come up with a plan that meets all of the required safety protocols.

“We’re not saying the borders get thrown open. We’re saying we can actually start to bring people back in a more managed way that is safe but doesn’t need MIQ, Taylor says.

“The only way this is going to happen is if they (the Government) let go. We can show them the conditions we are going to put in place. We just need them to tick this box. No more reports.”

He also questions how the Government can collate information from 150 individuals on the trial when there were no clear objectives and goals.

“That’s not a trial to figure out how you get 30,000 people home,” he says. “I don’t know how they will assess it. You need to have systems in place to gather evidence. We’ve got clear goals. We’re reporting every day to Ernst & Young on specific things.”

In hindsight Terry says he would have been better off in an MIQ hotel. He and two sailing other colleagues won November spots in MIQ but he also applied for one of the 150 trial places so he could isolate in his own home.

But, he says, his two colleagues were far better off. Because they were in the same bubble, they shared a ground-floor patio for a beer at night and were released after seven days. They then boarded a flight to Queenstown so they could isolate with their families for another three days. Meanwhile he was still in isolation on day 10 with no saliva testing results, and a message saying he hadn’t had his final PCR test done.

In response to questions from the Herald a spokesperson for MBIE said an evaluation of the self-isolation pilot was being prepared for the Covid-19 Response Minister, Chris Hipkins.

“This evaluation will include the application process and border systems, and the delivery of services in self-isolation such as testing, location monitoring, compliance and enforcement.”

In addition, the evaluation would include feedback from participants and others involvedsuch as transport providers and airport border testing staff. The statement said the self-isolation period for business travellers on the pilot was shortened from 14 days to 10 days on November 14, the same day MIQ stays were reduced to seven days plus three days in self-isolation.

MBIE did not answer a question about timing, instead saying the Government would “inform the public when they have made a decision on future self-isolation, and this decision will include advice from public health”.

The spokesperson said MBIE was aware Sir Ian Taylor was trialling some other options for Covid-19 testing and location monitoring.

“We look forward to receiving his feedback on his experience in the pilot.”

*Terry’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

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