New Zealand authorities have stepped up measures to combat the deadly coronavirus as it spreads to more countries and the death toll climbs overseas.

But the Government is being accused of inaction amid fears not enough is being done to prevent the disease entering this country.

Heightened concern around the fast-spreading flu-like virus - which has so far killed at least 58 people globally and infected thousands more – has prompted New Zealand officials to send public health workers to meet flights from China.

Authorities have stepped up measures to combat coronavirus - but there are fears not enough is being done to keep it out of New Zealand. Photo / 123RF
Authorities have stepped up measures to combat coronavirus - but there are fears not enough is being done to keep it out of New Zealand. Photo / 123RF

That followed four cases – coming directly from the centre of the outbreak in Wuhan – being confirmed in Australia over the weekend.

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At Auckland and Christchurch airports, workers today begin scanning arriving passengers for symptoms, and referring for assessment anyone feeling unwell or with a temperature higher than 38C.

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"If a case is suspected, we have systems in place to enable us to test for it," the Ministry of Health's deputy director of public health Dr Harriette Carr told the Herald.

New Zealand labs were expected to be able to test for the virus by later this week; until then, samples would be sent to Australia.

Carr said the new coronavirus caused pneumonia, and symptoms – such as fever, and cough or breathing difficulties - were similar to the regular flu.

As Wuhan was in the middle of the winter season, common respiratory illnesses were expected among travellers from the city.

"So far, no cases of this novel coronavirus have been reported in New Zealand," Carr said.

"Although the risk of an outbreak occurring in New Zealand is currently assessed as low, the Ministry is taking this outbreak very seriously."

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An Auckland Airport spokesman said it would provide support to public health staff working on site today and meeting travellers arriving on flights from mainland China.

"Public health staff will be available to take the temperature of travellers who feel unwell, and to provide further assistance and information if required. Chinese language health advice cards will also be provided to arriving passengers.

"Throughout the process, Auckland Airport will continue to follow public health advisories."

Five flights were scheduled to land at Auckland Airport from mainland China today.

Health Minister David Clark has announced new measures to help prevent the deadly virus from entering New Zealand. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Health Minister David Clark has announced new measures to help prevent the deadly virus from entering New Zealand. Photo / Mark Mitchell

This week, Health Minister David Clark said he would take a paper to Cabinet which would make the novel coronavirus a notifiable disease.

Clark said the ministry had a special incident control team in place, and the Government's Interagency Pandemic Group had also been convened as a precaution.

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"I want to assure the public that New Zealand is well prepared for these sorts of situations – we are active and alert, but not alarmed."

The outbreak has affected millions of people in China, whose president Xi Jinping has called the accelerating spread of a new virus a "grave situation".

As of yesterday, more than 2000 people were infected and 58 had died in China, with fresh cases being reported around the globe.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which was advising Kiwi travellers to avoid Hubei province, reported there were currently 369 New Zealanders registered on SafeTravel as being in China, of whom 16 were registered as being in Wuhan.

Carr said New Zealand health officials were keeping in close contact with Australian authorities as they carried out contact tracing.

Pharmacies in Auckland, Dunedin and Christchurch have been running out of breathing masks.

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Cashel Street Unichem owner Annabel Turley said she'd had to source extra breathing masks from hardware stores and keep her store open late over the weekend.

But, she said she was not too worried.

"We have a lot of very concerned travellers - even European tourists are getting scared. I do personally think they're overreacting.

"Seasonal influenza kills so many more people than those big, worrying epidemics."

Meanwhile, some travellers who had arrived in New Zealand from China, and were alarmed at the lack of screening, had put themselves into a two-week quarantine, said Jeff He, a member of the Auckland Wuhan community.

"There was no screening, no information, no warning. They were surprised and wearing masks too," he said.

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"As a minimum, we need thermal scanners so we can check people's temperatures and whether they have any fever.

"The Chinese community here are very concerned, we all know each other, and we know who has come back recently. While the death rate is not that high, we know it spreads so fast."

Otago University Professor of Public Health Michael Baker said the Government's move was a necessary one at this stage of the outbreak.

"But this is a serious problem and obviously this first measure won't detect everyone. The question is, how far widely do you cast your net?"

Baker said a second-tier response could capture passengers from all international flights, noting they could have caught connecting flights, or come into contact with potentially infected people in transit areas.

National's health spokesman Michael Woodhouse questioned whether the latest measures would be enough. Photo / Supplied
National's health spokesman Michael Woodhouse questioned whether the latest measures would be enough. Photo / Supplied

National's health spokesman Michael Woodhouse questioned whether the latest measures would be enough - and whether those services that would be likely to see the first case, like GP clinics, were prepared.

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"While I have a small sense of relief that the Government has decided to take the most basic first step to manage this risk, there's a great deal more communication and action that the minister and ministry should be taking," he said.

"Schools will be going back soon and that means an influx of international students will be coming, yet the Government has failed to provide any reassurance or information on how this will be managed to parents and students."