Nicholas Jones

Nicholas Jones is the New Zealand Herald’s education reporter.

Quarantine mix-up alarms passengers

Japanese high school students on a flight from Narita were suspected of displaying flu-like symptoms. Photo / Richard Robinson
Japanese high school students on a flight from Narita were suspected of displaying flu-like symptoms. Photo / Richard Robinson

The Japanese students who sparked a major health scare were mistakenly allowed to mingle with cleared passengers until authorities realised and removed them from an airport holding room.

Passengers on flight NZ90 from Narita, Tokyo, were greeted by health workers wearing white jumpsuits and masks after landing at Auckland Airport about 9.20am yesterday.

The alert was sparked after Air New Zealand staff reported a group of 93 Japanese high school students aged 16-17 were displaying flu-like symptoms. All passengers were later cleared and allowed to leave - but the response has been criticised as both disorganised and an overreaction.

After about an hour on the tarmac most passengers were escorted off the plane by masked health workers, leaving behind the students and passengers in the rows immediately in front of them.

People waiting at the airport for relatives and friends complained of a lack of information as they were joined by television cameras and reporters.

Passenger Lauren Borgas, 26, said she was one of the passengers "red-stickered" by authorities, and was taken to a room where St John staff took her temperature and pulse.

"They said my temperature was up. Well yeah, that's because I was panicking, I had a mask on ... some people had masks, some people didn't. It was just chaotic."

Ms Borgas said that when she was eventually cleared to join the other passengers in a holding room she was surprised to see the Hitchi Senior Technical High School group among them.

"We said to the pilots, who were standing outside the door, 'Why are the school kids in there?' ... then another lady came running through and said, 'Get these kids out of here.'

"She took them out into the other room, but it was already too late, we had already mixed together," Ms Borgas said.

Later, as she left the airport about 12.15pm, her mother, Rhonda Borgas, was still on edge about what passengers might have been exposed to.

"If it was something really contagious, it just proves we're not ready to cope."

But Auckland Regional Public Health Service clinical director Dr Julia Peters defended the response and said the room mix-up had not posed a real danger to passengers.

"Some of the students did briefly go into the wrong room, but they were soon redirected into the triage area," Dr Peters said. "They were all masked. There was no risk to anybody in the room ... they were quickly removed from that area."

When the school group, some wearing masks, finally exited customs yesterday, there were comical scenes as they wove through a large media contingent.

Many gave their best one or two-word answers to questions, while others flashed peace signs and took their own photos of the media.

Stuart Cundy, who is organising the students' accommodation through Let's Homestay, said he felt the quarantine was something of an overreaction to minor symptoms.

- NZ Herald

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