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On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd Interviews Health Minister David Clark

Simon Shepherd: With me now from Dunedin is Health Minister David Clark. Minister, thank you for your time this morning. Four confirmed cases of Covid-19 that we know of – do you have an update for us?
David Clark: I’m not aware of any further positive tests, Simon, at this stage, but the Director General is giving our regular daily briefings, and he will update on any specific testing that’s happened overnight about 1 o’clock this afternoon.
One o’clock this afternoon. Okay. So, look, well, let’s go back and talk about the second case and her partner. It was revealed yesterday that he went to the sold-out Tool concert and he was in the mosh pit. And we’ve got some pictures of what it was like there. Why is that only considered a casual contact for people that were in the mosh pit with that person?
Well I think the public health officials are experts in this area. This is what they have trained to do. It’s why we have a comprehensive long-standing pandemic plan in place. And so what happens is the public health officials make an assessment of how close people have been and what kind of contact they’ve been. Got to remember that this disease spreads by coughing, by big droplets, so you’ve actually got to be very close to somebody.
Yeah, in a mosh pit, it’s full of sweat, it’s full of spit, and there’s a lot of people there, and it’s a two-hour concert. Isn’t that the perfect breeding ground?
Well, I think, you know, the reason that public health officials have made this announcement very public is so that people can monitor their own symptoms. This is something, you know, the government’s acted decisively, it’s acted early – it’s meant that we’ve only got four cases here, where in Australia, for example, they’ve got 60. Germany’s had another 134 overnight. We’ve acted early, and that’s bought us time. But the most important thing here is that people have information, so that they can monitor themselves for any symptoms. We’re going to have to become more health conscious as New Zealanders and if we are worried, make sure that we are self-isolating and contact their GP by the phone to make a plan.
Okay. So the people that were in that mosh pit who were near the partner of the second case, so the man who now has Covid-19, what should they be doing? I mean, are they the ones that have to self-isolate? Are they the ones that have to look at themselves and ring Healthline? Are we relying on them?
We are ultimately. This is what public health officials worldwide know works. When people have good information about the likely symptoms, if they develop a cold or a fever, if they start to feel unwell, it’s really important that you do those things that you’d do for a cold or flu anyway – that you self-isolate, that you concentrate on washing your hands. But make a plan, talk to your GP – give them call and make a plan.
Well, let’s talk about the handling of this second case. This man’s wife, she returned from North Italy on Tuesday the 25th. And she says she visited medical clinics in the following days and told them where she’d been, but she wasn’t diagnosed. Do you know why that didn’t happen?
Look, I can’t get too far into the specifics of individual cases, but I would say that, you know, the Italian situation was developing when these people got on the plane to come back to New Zealand. There were only 124 cases in the whole of Italy reported at that stage. It has been a rapidly developing situation since then.
Of course, we know there’s been an explosion. We have asked that people self-isolate for a period of 14 days.
Sure, but at that time, you say 124 cases at the time that they got on the plane, but at that time, Britain told its people to self-isolate if they’d been in Italy. Was the government too late in putting out a warning about Italy?
No, we acted early and decisively. The measures we’ve taken have been amongst the most forthright in the world. And we don’t make any apology for that. We’ve taken a very precautionary approach. And that’s why I think we’re doing so much better than most of the countries we like to compare ourselves with.
Sure. But if we have put out a warning earlier about Italy and if it had been picked up when this lady said she went to medical clinics, we wouldn’t have this situation of the Tool concert, of this lady going on a domestic flight, of her going to a cheerleading thing. It doesn’t seem that particular case could get more mishandled.
Well, we’ve got some of the strictest requirements in place of any country in the world, and we acted early and decisively. And I think that is why we’ve only got four cases at this stage.
But we didn’t act as quickly as Britain, though, did we?
I think you’ll see that we were right there at the forefront amongst global, if you looked at all, countries around the world. We were assessing evidence all the time, and we’ve based our decisions on public health experts giving advice, and we’ve moved very quickly to make sure that we do have some of the toughest restrictions.
If we had some of the toughest restrictions, can you reassure New Zealanders that the same scenario that we’ve had with the Tool concert, with the domestic flight isn’t playing out all around New Zealand. We had the Pixies concert in Auckland last night. What should be happening to those public events?
Well, you know, the main advice is that we’ve got to work together to get through this. New Zealanders are going to have to become more health conscious than they historically have been, probably. I think people need to make sure that if they’re feeling unwell – this goes for colds and flus, any other similar virus – do stay at home. Don’t go to public events. Don’t go to work. Make sure that if you’re coughing, you’re coughing into your elbow. You know, all of those basic things – wash your hands regularly. And make sure that you are reaching out for help. Get on the phone. Get the advice that you need.
All right. So get on the phone, but don’t go necessarily to a GP. The question here is should you be setting up now dedicated medical hubs for people who suspect that they’ve got Covid-19? Because the Royal College of GPs wants this, because they don’t want GPs to either get infected or be overrun.
We’re not at that stage yet. We are having conversations, of course, with the Royal College of GPs. I’m aware that the Director General of health is in regular contact. All of our GPs and primary care facilities have been issued with personal protective equipment. That’s been very well orchestrated around the country.
Sorry. Has that been well orchestrated? Because NewsHub revealed last night that some DHBs actually charging the GP clinics for that protective gear. I mean, is that reasonable? Is that well-orchestrated?
Well, I think the most important thing is that they have the gear. Sorting out who pays for it is a secondary matter.
Okay. Do we have enough stocks in the country of protective gear?
We do. We’ve got over 9 million masks we know of one type and another further 9 million of another. We’ve got a factory in New Zealand – we are fortunate we’ve got a factory that constructs masks in New Zealand. Lots of other countries do not. We are well prepared for this, and that’s the beauty of having this long-standing and comprehensive pandemic plan that we have and also the fact that we took that early and decisive action that’s kept Covid-19 at bay. We’ve been able to look overseas and see what strategies have been working overseas, where sporadic cases come in, to do containment well. And so we’ve had the time to prepare well, and now we’re rolling out our plan.
All right. Let’s talk about that containment or, say, the protection at the border. There’s a travel ban on certain people from China, but I think there’s a fair bit of misconception about what that actually is. And I say that because in the seven days to Thursday this March, there were 16 flights from China. That’s about 3700 people. So the people that are allowed to come in from, say, China, where there’s a travel ban are who? Are they just New Zealanders and Australian permanent residents or are there other people allowed to come?
That’s right. So Australian permanent residents, New Zealand citizens and New Zealand permanent residents are allowed to return. They are expected also to go into self-isolation. They’re registered with Healthline for a period of 14 days upon return. It’s a very precautionary approach, but it has served us well to date.
Sure. Do we know that those 3000-odd people just from China if those planes are full are going into self-isolation? Do we know that?
Well, I think the first thing to say is that the planes have not been full. Secondly, around the world, the public health experts tell us that self-isolation is one of the most effective mechanisms we can put in place. It works. When people are kept to themselves, the virus doesn’t spread.
Sure but do we know that minister?
The Healthline is checking regularly with people. People are able to get what advice they need from the Healthline. And we have powers - if we have concerns about people, there are powers in place with this being a notifiable disease, where public health officials can act if they’re concerned that people are not taking this seriously. But historically, where we’ve had other outbreaks, these powers have not been required.
Are these powers required now? I mean, what are those powers? If someone is believed not to have self-isolated, what do you do?
People can be quarantined. They can be ordered to, by public health officers if there is concern. But as I say, historically, these powers have not been needed.
We have not needed to use them yet.
All right. Just wanted to sort of wrap up. The last Covid-19 case was spread here. So does that mean in our pandemic levels, are we in the stamp it out phase of the pandemic plan or another phase now?
We are still predominantly – it’s not a linear thing – but we’re predominantly in the Keep it Out phase. A lot of resource is going in to making sure that people, as they arrive in New Zealand, have the appropriate information to go into self-isolation if necessary to make sure that they know to watch for symptoms and also making sure that we do contain any cases that come in. Because we can expect to have further cases coming in.
Yeah, sure.
And then also we’re getting public health information out, making sure people understand what symptoms to look for, that the importance of self-isolation, washing hands. It’s actually going to take all of New Zealand to get through this.
I understand that everybody has to buy into this, but the question is, if it’s spread from one person to another within New Zealand, hasn’t the keep-it-out phase bolted and we need to be moving up that pandemic level?
We’re not at that stage yet, no.
When do we get to that stage? What level of transmission makes this go to the next stage?
As far as we are aware, there has not been any community outbreak that’s gone further than just those isolated cases that have come in and been able to be isolated at this stage. We are better prepared and in a better position than most other countries in the world, and that’s because of that decisive early action, as I’ve said. And while we’ve got that advantage, we’re going to continue to use it.
All right. Health Minister David Clark, I know you’re very busy at the moment. Thank you very much for your time.
Thanks, Simon.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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