Sir Ian Taylor is on a mission: to prove that for many travellers returning to New Zealand, there's a better alternative to the hopelessly overcrowded managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) system.
Last month Taylor got government approval to trial a version of private self-isolation when he returned from a business trip to the United States.
The veteran entrepreneur — the founder of Animation Research Ltd (ARL), best-known for its America's Cup graphics — wanted to prove he could fly from Dunedin to Auckland, on to Los Angeles and San Francisco, and return to New Zealand safely. The plan was to use the best Kiwi technology, and to avoid taking up any MIQ space.
While he had a point to make, Taylor said he wouldn't have taken an MIQ space anyway: "I would feel terrible to take an MIQ slot, I wouldn't take one."
The Government had given approval for 150 businesspeople to self-manage their isolation when returning from overseas, using protocols developed by the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). Taylor, in turn, called his privately-funded trial #151 Off The Bench — a reference to the team of experts who helped develop the additional protocols and technology he used.
Now, after doing his isolation in a Herne Bay townhouse for 10 days, protected by technology including a geowatch to make sure he didn't stray, and an array of Covid-19 tests, Taylor has emerged with some lessons for the government. Below, he offers his view on how New Zealand can open up to more travellers, while keeping the country safe.
The "Reconnecting New Zealand" announcement from Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins yesterday served to confirm the stories we have heard on the 151 Off the Bench team — that the policy makers advising the Minister had no intention of engaging with any third party for ideas on how we might do that reconnecting more quickly, safely and efficiently.
The announcement does not address the urgent issue that export businesses have to be re-engaging with the world now. That needs to happen both offshore, and with clients and investors coming here. The rest of the world is not waiting for us.
All we got is confirmation that those who have had to travel overseas for business can now confirm to their families that they won't be home for Christmas.
The announcement does not acknowledge that businesses have been keeping their staff safe with their own internal protocols, and can be trusted to ensure those protocols are maintained because it is simply too costly for everyone concerned if they aren't.
The announcement does not see us reconnecting with the world – it sees us waiting until January 16 to bring Kiwis home from Australia, and a further month to start bringing them home from other countries. That is not reconnecting with the world; that is doing something that should have been a priority months ago.
There is a reference to "other eligible travellers", but as we have seen with these announcements, interpreting these terms is an art form handed to officials to do with what they wish.
The MIQ system — the one that leaked the single case that Minister Hipkins referred to as being the case that now has us dealing with a divided country and thousands of cases — will remain in place. Does that include the virtual lobby?
In April next year, as we head towards the almost-guaranteed winter surge that we are witnessing all over the world, will MIQ be maxxed out housing sick Covid patients who the hospitals can't handle, making it impossible to house the thousands of travellers we thought would be coming in?
These were the sorts of issues we set out to address when we started on our 151 Off the Bench trial. The trial we designed to run alongside the official MBIE Business Self-Isolation trial with 150 business travellers.
Now that the government has confirmed they weren't going to take us seriously anyway, let me share it with you — something to measure the Minister's announcement against.
As the basis for our trial, we set two objectives:
• Undertake essential travel overseas and have it in place before the end of the year.
• Create an alternative to MIQ that could bring home stranded Kiwis based on an agreed priority system.
We set these goals because there were none that had been conveyed to us in the MBIE trial and we viewed setting a specific timeline and targeted outcome as essential to conducting a meaningful trial. It would certainly be at the centre of any trial we would conduct as a private business.
We then engaged EY to join us to "conduct an independent review of the 151 trial, specifically looking at the extent to which two pre-defined objectives were met."
Those objectives were to measure if:
• The 151 trial's travel and isolation execution met all of MBIE's protocols
• The service put in place by The Bench for the 151 trial was repeatable
You can read EY's full report, delivered four days after I completed my trial, at cthe bottom of this article.
If I was asked to share my findings with the government, this is what they would have been.
1: The processes put in place by Customs and Immigration at my entry point, Auckland Airport, were well-executed and could easily form the basis for an expansion of the model. To ease potential congestion at the airport, the critical testing process for safe entry into New Zealand could be moved to re-purposed MIQ hotels close to the airport where travellers could be held for as little as 24 hours to get confirmation of their negative status before being released into an approved self-isolation programme.
2: The mandated conditions under which the MBIE self-isolation programme was run were based on conditions that applied to Covid when the MIQ system was first set up 18 months ago. No recognition was given to the vaccination status of the participants, nor the fact that many of us had tested negative on numerous occasions before flying back into New Zealand.
The original purpose of MIQ was to determine whether or not a traveller had Covid. It is now clear that the chances of finding Covid in a person travelling into the country are significantly less than finding it in the community in New Zealand.
We have been told that modelling has been used to inform policy makers that there is still a high level of risk of Covid coming through our border. Modelling data is something that has been at the core of our company, ARL, and one of the basic rules we follow is that the results you get out are only as good as the data you put in.
With the change in conditions around vaccination requirements and improved testing at almost all of the world's departure points, this needs to be factored into the risk profile of any self-isolation programme. Any future modelling needs to be built around a much overdue examination of our testing regime.
3: The government's reliance on a single nasopharyngeal PCR test provides the biggest handicap to the delivery of timely test results that would significantly streamline the self-isolation process. The 151 Off the Bench trial used two alternative Kiwi-based PCR tests, both of which consistently outperformed the single MBIE-approved test in timeliness and ease of use.
I also used rapid antigen tests that are now in common use around the world to add another level of assurance. All of these tools should be used as part of a more comprehensive testing model and the government should consider additional funding for Pharmac to make these tests free, as they are in many other countries.
Our trial identified two levels of self-isolation that could form the basis of immediate discussions with appropriate ministers.
1: Self-Managed Isolation
This level of self-isolation would apply in circumstances where there is a high degree of control by the organisations in charge of those who are travelling and evidenced by Covid protocols that are internally enforceable and auditable. Examples would be businesses, government agencies, sports teams, entertainment groups, film productions, high-value managed tourist groups, and others that would be agreed upon.
Pre-entry conditions would include the requirement for:
• 24-hour pre-departure negative PCR tests. These are readily available in countries around the world, many at airports. The 72 -hour window leaves too much room for uncertainty and makes the test meaningless in the context of a pre-entry condition.
• Evidence of full vaccination – although tests showing you don't actually have Covid should be seen as being of equal, if not greater importance.
• Confirmation of the self-isolation locations that meet agreed protocols for this level of traveller.
2: Managed Self-Isolation
This scenario is for individuals or groups travelling outside of any clearly identifiable structure, with an initial focus on bringing home grounded Kiwis who are homeless, stateless, or separated from their immediate family. The father who has never seen his 1-year-old child is a prime candidate for bringing home for Christmas. Anyone stranded in a country without a visa needs to be brought home now. It is their right as a citizen and our responsibility as fellow citizens to make it happen.
Much of the MBIE trial could be described as "analog" — emails, pdfs, form filling. The one piece of technology used was delivered by a Kiwi company and it was world class. It is a technology that definitely has a role to play in a self-isolation programme that needs to be monitored.
As a result of the 151 trial, this company is now working alongside two of the eight Kiwi technology companies that came off the bench to provide a range of tools that made this trial a fully digital experience, providing a much higher level of evidential data for us to work with in creating our models for self-isolation.
Time to engage
Over the weeks that I have had the privilege of being free to focus on options that may be available to us to look at MIQ in a different way, I have been constantly warned that the likely response from officials will be that they are already doing this. They don't need our help.
The Minister's announcement has confirmed that position. This was a trial we funded entirely ourselves because any government funds we got would have been taxpayer funds anyway. At least they are making some effort for the taxpayer – they are charging me $1000 for being on their trial.
Now is the time to accept that we don't have all of the answers – but working together with a clearly defined goal and timeline, we can fix this.
Prime Minister, I wrote my first open letter to you on September 12 with an offer to bring in help from the Bench.
This now is that offer. Is anyone listening?
Consultancy EY carried out an independent review of Sir Ian Taylor's trial, which was carried out alongside MBIE's trial of self-isolation for 150 travellers. Among its findings:
• The trial easily met MBIE's protocols for self-isolation
• Some steps — over and above MBIE requirements — could reduce risk even further
• The system could be repeated for future travel
• There are ways to improved the experience of self-isolation
• Extra saliva tests — on top of the nasal tests required by MBIE — provided added assurance that Taylor had not caught Covid-19