One of New Zealand's leading Covid-19 experts says the Port of Tauranga's vaccination rate is a "real weakness" and has called for better regulations around borders.
Self-isolating port workers are said to be distressed, believing they have let down their community by not isolating sooner.
On Monday, it was revealed crew of the container ship Rio de la Plata, which had been berthed in Tauranga within the past week, had tested positive for Covid-19.
Port workers had also been on the vessel and, subsequently, 98 of those workers employed by a Port of Tauranga contractor were forced to self-isolate and get tested.
One-hundred-and-ten port workers were tested for the virus and last night, health officials confirmed all had returned negative. Originally, all but one returned negative but the outlier result was inconclusive and retested.
University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker said ports were one of New Zealand's most vulnerable areas in the fight to keep Covid-19 out of the country.
"People don't always appreciate that borders are actually a major area of potential risk," he said.
"I think we should be much more assertive in how we work with the owners and operators of any ship that is brought into New Zealand.
"Vaccination levels in port workers are still relatively low. I think that's a real, real weakness."
A Port of Tauranga worker, who spoke anonymously to not breach his contract, said his colleagues were distressed about the situation.
"There is quite a few of them who are really pissed off they were sent home to their families and told there was nothing to worry about," he said.
"Some of them feel like there's a bit of responsibility on themselves as well and they weren't given the opportunity to act responsibly."
Nine of the 98 workers identified as having contact with the Rio de la Plata were vaccinated.
Port of Tauranga spokeswoman Rochelle Lockley said the port was only responsible for ensuring all its employees were vaccinated - despite about 6000 people having swipe access.
"Almost all of our own frontline staff are vaccinated, but there are dozens of companies that work on the port," she said.
"A small proportion of these interact with ships and so are eligible for regular Covid-19 testing and early vaccination."
Lockley said the port only had visibility over the vaccination rates for its own employees, not the contracted companies.
Around 50 Port of Tauranga team members were eligible and almost all were fully vaccinated, she said.
Vaccinations have been available at the port since March. In response to Baker's comments, Lockley said the port strongly supported vaccination and it was exhibited through the information sessions and on-site vaccination centres.
"Vaccination is another useful tool in the fight against Covid-19, but we will continue to follow all our other precautions that have worked for the past 18 months: frequent cleaning, use of PPE, physical distancing from ship's crew and regular Covid-19 testing," she said.
"These precautions were followed by all workers who boarded the Rio de la Plata last week."
Port operations were initially shut down last week when cargo left the vessel, despite the Ministry of Health giving the all-clear for operations, Maritime NZ confirmed to the Bay of Plenty Times yesterday.
Ships entering any harbour are obligated to declare they are free of contagious disease. Lockley referred to it as the "free pratique" process.
"Ships' captains must apply to the local Medical Officer of Health for permission to berth before entering any port."
Asked why the crew were not tested before entering the Port of Tauranga, a Ministry of Health spokesman said after an assessment, the risk was deemed to be low.
"The health assessment remained the same – namely that the arriving Rio De la Plata ship could have Covid-19 cases on board, and would be treated as such."
In response to Baker's comments, the spokesman said recent events did highlight the "heightened risk" port workers faced.
"Highly transmissible variants like the Delta Variant, which was found to have infected the international mariners, greatly increases the risk of Covid-19 crossing our border through the port sector, and the ministry and its stakeholders remain strongly committed to working together to protect our borders."
He said employers were responsible for making sure workers were vaccinated in line with the legislation.
Speaking to the Herald, Port of Tauranga chief executive Leonard Sampson questioned the quality of government agencies' risk assessment of the vessel flagged as a Covid risk but allowed to berth and unload.
"The concern really is around the decision to allow the vessel in the first place," he said.
"I think more transparency and understanding around the risk assessment process in the beginning [was needed]. From our perspective, we would have liked to see a comprehensive risk assessment carried out on August 3 before the vessel was allowed to berth at the port."
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said on Monday afternoon health authorities were looking at whether it was known there were sick people on board when the ship was unloaded.
"We will look at who knew what, when" and what decisions were made, he said.
On Tuesday afternoon, the ministry announced the two pilots, one of whom brought the Rio de la Plata into port and the other who took it out, had returned negative results and would remain in isolation for the balance of the 14 days after the possible exposure.
Toi Te Ora, the local public health unit, confirmed 72 port workers boarded the vessel while it was docked in Tauranga.
All of these workers have been tested and all results are negative. Some individuals may have an additional test to ensure they fall within the 72-hour threshold of when they were last on the ship.
The Ministry of Health has said the risk to the community following the incident involving the Rio de la Plata was low but a cautious approach was being taken.
Any decisions on introducing social restrictions, such as reducing the size of events or pausing them all together, would be made and announced by the Government. The alert level currently remains at 1.
However, Mark Roberson from Whakatāne was cutting the basketball season short for his two teenagers aged 13 and 16 after they played an inter-school tournament on Wednesday night in Tauranga.
The 59-year-old got his first Covid shot on Saturday and said he would only have a 20 per cent chance of surviving if he got the sometimes deadly virus.
Roberson was worried about the foot traffic at Trustpower Arena as there were about 30 teams participating and ''there was a lot of children and parents crossing paths''.
He wondered if any of those people were connected to the Port of Tauranga workers currently self-isolating.
BayVenues strategic marketing and communications manager Samantha Wilkie said it had robust plans already in place to quickly adapt our venues to adhere to escalated alert levels.
At the moment it was adhering to alert level 1 and had the Government's Covid Tracer app code on display within all its venues and ''we continue to encourage best hygiene practices''.
In the last financial year on average, there were 0.4 sporting events a week at Trustpower Arena.
Western Bay of Plenty Principals Association president Suzanne Billington said schools adhered to Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health guidelines and because there was no community transition, it came down to parental choice.
''So if any parent is feeling uncomfortable they can make their own decisions for their children.''