Wellington travellers to Rarotonga offloaded ‘in error’ over covid scare

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CI Health Secretary Bob Williams
Cook Islands Health Secretary Bob Williams ... defended the offload decision, saying it was in line with the government’s “precautionary approach”. Image: Cook Islands News

By Emmanuel Samoglou in Avarua, Cook Islands

Cook Islands Te Marae Ora Ministry of Health has apologised to passengers who were offloaded in error on an Air New Zealand flight to Rarotonga on Thursday (Wednesday, Cook Islands time).

The government said 13 passengers were offloaded off the flight after it was discovered they had originated from Wellington.

In a statement last night, the government said the passengers were offloaded at the request of Te Marae Ora Ministry of Health, which made the decision after the Wellington region moved into alert level 2 when it was discovered a traveller from Sydney visited the New Zealand capital and later tested positive for covid-19.

No community cases have been reported in New Zealand since the Sydney traveller visited Wellington. However, New South Wales health authorities have reported 33 new cases in the past 24 hours, taking the total of the Delta variant alert cases to 82 since June 16 and a Greater Sydney lockdown.

The Cook Islands ministry did not specify how many of the 13 passengers were offloaded in error.

Yesterday Health Secretary Bob Williams defended the decision, saying it was in line with the government’s “precautionary approach” as well as Wellington Airport having been listed as a location of interest.

“I make no apologies for taking this decision,” Williams said.

Apology for ‘stress, uncertainty’
“I do apologise to the passengers who were offloaded in error and for the stress and uncertainty it caused all off-loaded passengers.

“I also apologise to those visitors currently in Rarotonga who have had their holidays temporarily disrupted –- sometimes in the middle of the night –- so that members of my staff could swab them. These tourists have mostly been 100 percent supportive of our efforts and for this I am extremely grateful.”

Williams said he was grateful for the co-operation of resort and private accommodation people who worked with the ministry and assisted with locating and getting messages to their guests.

Cook Islands News reported TMO’s response was applauded by many in the industry following Wellington moving to alert level 2, however one accommodation provider said they were concerned about possible interactions between the Wellington-originating passengers and others at Auckland Airport prior to boarding for Rarotonga.

“What happened effectively on Wednesday was that the people from Wellington mixed and mingled with other people at the departure lounge at the airport,” the accommodation provider said.

“Potentially you could have had a whole plane infected.”

Williams said 124 people had been tested during the 24-hour period ending Thursday afternoon, all having returned a negative result.

Unlikely last disruption
“This will likely not be the last time travel under the Quarantine Free Travel arrangement between New Zealand and the Cook Islands is disrupted. Disruptions do need to be factored into everyone’s plans”.

In a release, the ministry said officials are presuming the Australian case has the Delta variant and that he likely contracted the virus in Sydney. On Thursday, parts of the city have moved into lockdown after another 22 cases were confirmed.

The ministry is asking any passengers who Te Marae Ora has not tracked down and who have visited a location of interest are asked to call health officials as soon as possible.

All visitors were also asked to complete a health declaration form and the arrival cards truthfully.

“Our systems have been tested again this week and have worked but we have also learned from this test and will be making some adjustments to our processes,” Williams said.

Te Marae Ora said it was continuing to monitor the situation in Wellington.

Republished with permission.

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