Auckland Emergency Management’s COVID-19 response was mobilised in February and is the single biggest operation Auckland Council’s emergency management department has ever coordinated.
Much of the work has focused on the welfare of Aucklanders – ensuring that they have the support they need during the nationwide lockdown and beyond. Alongside this, a significant part of AEM’s response to COVID-19 has been the coordination of the regional isolation and quarantine operation (RIQ). An operation of this scale and complexity would ordinarily be months in the planning; in reality, RIQ became operational in a matter of weeks.
Since 11.59 on 9 April, anyone entering New Zealand has been required to spend 14 days in a managed isolation or quarantine facility.
The vast majority of international arrivals are placed in managed isolation. Those who test positive for COVID-19, who are symptomatic or who have recently spent time with someone who has COVID-19, are placed in quarantine.
While the rest of New Zealand moves between the four COVID-19 alert levels, those in isolation and quarantine are consistently managed at the highest alert level to remove the risk of COVID-19 being reintroduced to New Zealand. At any one time, more than 2,000 people are in an isolation or quarantine facility in Auckland and since becoming operational, 7,746 people have successfully completed a stay in a managed facility.
Hotels become ‘home’ for international arrivals
A number of hotels in south and central Auckland have been home to international arrivals for their first 14 days in New Zealand. For the hotels, this has meant significant changes to their usual operation. In August 2019, the average length of stay in an Auckland hotel was 1.71 nights and it’s fair to say that it would be unusual for a guest to eat every meal at their hotel during their stay.
For hotels that are part of the isolation and quarantine programme, the picture now is very different. Guests in managed isolation or quarantine stay for a minimum of 14 days, with every meal catered by the hotel. Preparing three meals a day, seven days a week for guests in managed isolation is a huge undertaking. Each hotel has in the region of 300 guests, so that’s close to 1,000 meals a day.
Meals are prepared in hotel kitchens and using disposable serveware. Menus are balanced, offering variety and choice and catering to dietary requirements, but cannot be individually tailored according to taste. Guests can supplement hotel food with deliveries from local supermarkets or restaurants.
An operation of this scale requires significant support. In Auckland, a total of 564 staff from the Ministry of Health, New Zealand Police, the New Zealand Defence Force, Aviation Security and Customs, Auckland Emergency Management, Auckland Council and other government support agencies, have been deployed in a range of roles from the supervision of exercise to security, planning and logistics.
At the heart of the operation though, are the people who are returning home to New Zealand. For many, their stay in managed isolation or quarantine comes at the end of a stressful time trying to get home, with routes closing around the world and flight capacity drastically reduced.
“First and foremost, our role is to keep COVID-19 from coming into New Zealand from overseas,” says Auckland Emergency Management Group Controller Kate Crawford. “But we’re also very mindful of the fact that this is a process about people. For the 14 days that they’re with us, those in managed isolation and quarantine are in our care and for everyone involved in the operation, our commitment is to ensure their stay is as comfortable as it can be.”
That includes giving guests the opportunity to have daily supervised walks, should they choose to. For hotels with contained gardens, this has been easy to accommodate. For hotels in city centre locations and particularly under revised alert levels, it has been more complicated.
“Organised walks and physical exercise for those in managed isolation has been a hot topic for discussion. We recognise just how important it is for people’s wellbeing, to get out of their hotel room and get some fresh air.
“But it is equally important to always circle back to what we’re doing here – ensuring that we stamp out this virus in New Zealand. Therefore, our approach to managed exercise is, only when it is safe for our guests, for our staff and for other Aucklanders can we allow people out of their hotels,” says Kate.
Dedicated exercise zones have been established in some public areas and walking routes have been chosen to avoid some of the large city centre building works and busy streets. Each week, 663 supervised walks are organised for guests across hotels in the RIQ programme. Since the operation came into effect, the need to be agile and adapt to changing circumstances has been key.
For those who have returned to New Zealand from difficult circumstances overseas, the relief at being home has been palpable. Over the next few days, we’ll step through the hotel doors to share some of the fascinating - and sometimes remarkable - stories of those in managed isolation and quarantine and also those who have returned to their homes around New Zealand.