Covid-19: Plea for those assessing managed isolation applications to be medically qualified

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People wanting to return to New Zealand who are dying, need specialist healthcare or want to be with a terminally ill relative are “appalled” their applications are being assessed by staff without medical qualifications.

The Rydges Hotel, which is being used as a managed isolation facility, in Auckland.

The Rydges Hotel, which is being used as a managed isolation facility, in Auckland.
Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

People can apply on compassionate grounds to skip the queue for the border hotels or have their fees waived if they supply required medical information – or in rare cases some are able to isolate in their own homes.

The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment said its staff do not need a medical qualification to consider the supporting evidence and make decisions.

The team of about 35 has recently considered an application from basketball player Tom Abercrombie’s family to isolate at home because two of his children have special needs, and another from expat Trevor Ponting, who is dying from cancer, to get an emergency spot in MIQ.

Last year, a fee waiver application from Aucklander Julia Durkin landed in their inbox, including evidential documents from the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK about her father’s incurable illness.

She had taken a six-week trip to see him in hospital in the UK and did not want to pay the $3100 fee for managed isolation on her return.

When Durkin phoned up to check who would be reading through her father’s personal information, she was told nobody there had medical expertise.

“So what we’ve got is a government agency requesting private medical information about family members but … that information is not being assessed by a medically qualified person. Therefore those decisions that are being made on exemptions, emergency [allocation] and waivers on the medical evidence isn’t really being professionally done,” she said.

Durkin said she was asked for “evidence of a serious illness” but could not understand how the ministry decides what qualifies as a serious illness.

“That’s quite subjective. There’s no list on the MIQ [Managed Isolation and Quarantine] website that says ‘we consider these serious illnesses’. So it’s very open to interpretation.”

Halide also recently returned from a trip to the UK to see her father, who has late stage Parkinson’s disease.

For her fee waiver, she had to send evidence of his life expectancy.

“It’s been difficult getting any documentation from the NHS in the first place because that’s not really a service that they provide. And I’m thinking, certainly in my case, it was difficult because it’s something my Dad wouldn’t want to see. So I’m requesting something almost behind his back. Just now, to find out that it’s going to be potentially assessed by someone who doesn’t have any medical training is pretty upsetting,” she said.

In a statement, the ministry said medical documents accompanying any application were “generally accepted” if they contained the relevant information required to process it, like a letter from a medical specialist outlining the nature of a medical condition and patient prognosis.

“As such, staff do not need to have a medical qualification to process the application,” it said.

“For complex applications, such as for an exemption from managed isolation on medical grounds, the team may consult with health authorities to assist with assessing the medical information contained in the applications. The final decision ultimately rests with MIQ.”

Halide felt that was not good enough.

“I think they should automatically go through an expert. I don’t think that laymen have got any right to make those decisions. I’m really surprised that they don’t consult medics in instances like this because it’s not cut and dry,” she said.

On the other hand Julia Durkin said she would not be happy with the ministry passing on her father’s private documents to a third party without her consent.

She believed it needed its own medical staff to make informed decisions on applications like hers.

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