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Cracks in the country's managed isolation and quarantine facilities have been laid bare as leading health experts warn the MIQ system needs urgent reinforcement to prevent Omicron from leaking into the community.
This comes as border cases of Omicron continue to rise, with Cabinet set to meet virtually today to discuss ways of countering the latest Covid-19 variant that has authorities across the globe concerned.
Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) documents reveal 25 people successfully escaped from an MIQ facility, and another 27 tried to, in the past two years.
Fourteen of those incidents happened during October, the same month in which more than 150 complaints were laid about things such as food, cleanliness and exercise.
The data, obtained under the Official Information Act (OIA), shows October was the worst month for absconders and complaints since MIQ was established in 2020.
"Recently, MIQ has played a greater role in caring for community cases and we have seen an increase in absconders or attempted absconding," a recent report into the string of absconding incidents stated.
"Community cases can be reluctant to stay in MIQ and there are a greater percentage of persons presenting with higher needs and a large number of high-risk individuals."
The total number of people trying to flee is small given MIQ has catered to more than 200,000 returnees and 3,000 community cases.
However, it comes on the back of ongoing problems with MIQ with new figures revealing one in five managed isolation bills have not been paid, with $36 million in fees outstanding.
It also comes as experts call for tightened managed isolation restrictions to keep Omicron out of the community for as long as possible.
Epidemiologist Sir David Skegg said today that New Zealand's MIQ was "one of the most robust systems in the world" but no system was fail-safe.
The Government needed to urgently review MIQ procedures in the wake of Omicron arriving here, he told RNZ.
Arrivals in New Zealand should be required to return a negative PCR test - rather than a rapid antigen test.
There was also an "urgent need" to roll out booster shots, and delay the opening of the border with Australia, which is scheduled for next month.
"There's no question we should be delaying that decision until as many people as possible have had their booster shot," he said.
Risk Omicron could escape into community
Melbourne University epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely said while the MIQ system had improved it was not perfect and every time a new Omicron case was found in a returnee there was a risk of it escaping into the community.
The documents released to the Herald, reveal 14 people made a run for it during the Delta community outbreak, including one woman who managed to escape for two days before handing herself in to police.
Nine people – including seven infected with the virus - escaped over a five-week period between October 4 and November 6.
Buying cigarettes and going home to feed a cat were among the reasons for people's great escapes.
The string of absconding incidents prompted a review that was published last week.
"Unlike international arrivals, who have had time to mentally and physically prepare, community cases face a different situation," said Head of MIQ, Brigadier Rose King following the report.
"They first are dealing with the shock of being told they are Covid positive and then, at short notice, they have to make arrangements to come into a quarantine facility.
"This can be enormously stressful and – in some people – this can manifest in poor behaviour. Some are extremely reluctant to enter a facility and it is hard to keep people in if they are determined to leave."
It took a 32-year-old man only three minutes to leave his room and scale a fence at the Jet Park Hotel on October 4. But his freedom was short-lived. He was found by police dog handlers at his car 40 minutes later.
Two weeks later, two men escaped from Holiday Inn Auckland to buy cigarettes from a nearby dairy and were arrested by police within five minutes. The pair were community cases.
"The absconding appears to be spontaneous, neither were fully dressed," the report said.
On the same day an infected woman escaped after being escorted back to her home briefly to retrieve personal items, care for a pet and lock her home.
She reported to a police station two days later.
All three absconders were charged and are moving through the court system.
Eleven days later, an infected man escaped from the Novotel Ibis Ellerslie by simply walking out the front gate, where he was mistaken for a person authorised to leave. He was returned 24 minutes later.
A man and a woman, in their 30s, escaped from the Jet Park Hotel that same day by "altering a security fence and squeezing through the base of the fence". They were picked up by a waiting vehicle.
The man was detained at a traffic stop two days later, on November 1, and the woman was not required to isolate.
On November 5, a community case opened the gate at Amohia and walked over to an awaiting vehicle. Police detained the man and his driver three minutes later. The man was arrested and transferred to a Waikato police station.
A day later a close contact of a positive case scaled two fences during a "fresh air break" after telling authorities he wanted cigarettes and to see his girlfriend.
The 17-year-old had arrived at the facility a day before. He was apprehended 550m from the facility.
Twelve others attempted to escape an MIQ facility during the Delta outbreak.
Weaknesses in the fencing around MIQ facilities was a factor in several of the absconding events, the report found.
The report recommendations included reconsidering fencing, training staff to intervene "when appropriate", and a review process for transfers and short-term facility departures.
Security settings have been reviewed and improved after each absconding event, the report claims, but it is still likely more people will escape.
"If anyone staying at an MIQ facility is determined to leave it is still possible for them to do so," the report found.
"With the current number of high-risk individuals in MIQ it is reasonable to expect there will be further attempts to abscond."
The string of absconding incidents happened two months after an infected 23-year-old man who escaped on September 2 from the Novotel Ibis Ellerslie, and travel around 10km to Otahuhu during an almost 14-hour escapade.
He scaled the fence and made his way home, before a family member notified management.
"The investigation found that there was no one single point of failure resulting in this person being able to abscond," Head of MIQ, Brigadier Rose King said at the time.
MBIE said investigations are currently underway into absconding incidents from MIQ facilities since the man's escape on September 2.
Any reports into absconding events between July and October 2020 were not produced by MBIE because it did not have oversight of MIQ facilities during this time.
It's not only absconders that have voiced unhappiness in MIQ.
Since a dedicated system for complaints was established in November 2020, MIQ has received more than 1000, MBIE documents reveal.
Staff face a frequent barrage of complaints – 1152 have been laid since December 2020.
The most for any one month, 154, were laid in October.
Food and beverages caused the highest number of complaints, 341, followed by exercise, 234, and health and safety, 196. Seven people complained about vaccination.
MBIE confirmed that a common complaint was around food preferences.
Guests are provided with three meals a day and snacks. Guests can also order room service or deliveries from local shops or supermarkets at their own expense.
"More often than not, the Regional Isolation and Quarantine Control Centre (RIQCC) teams and MIQFs have resolved the complaints by the time the Ministry receives them," MBIE said.
"It is also important to note there may not always be a solid outcome for each complaint. For example, were the Ministry to receive a significant number of formal complaints regarding food being cold at a specific facility, we would work with the RIQCC and the facility to improve that for the future."
Almost 200,000 people have stayed in an MIQ facility and more than 3,500 community cases.