Kaipara Coast Sculpture Gardens owner David Bayly says the business’ recent brush with a positive Covid case has underlined the importance of people scanning everywhere they go and sanitising their hands.
Business owners in the region, visited by a woman infected with Covid-19, are calling on the Ministry of Health to “get its act together” after they say it bungled its response to the emergency.
The 56-year-old woman recently returned from overseas and left managed isolation on January 13 after returning two negative tests for Covid. She subsequently developed symptoms of the disease and tested positive for a South African strain of the virus.
Prior to testing positive, the woman travelled extensively around southern Northland and Kaipara.
On Sunday January 24, businesses began learning that they had received a visit from the woman when a list of locations she had visited was posted on the Ministry of Health website.
But businesses say the Ministry failed to promptly contact them on what to do next, and their own desperate efforts to reach officials hit a brick wall.
Kauri Coast Plant Centre & Sculpture Gardens owner David Bayly says he first learned that his business was affected when a staff member called around 10pm that Sunday.
Mr Bayly immediately called the Covid-19 Healthline – as advised in a Ministry news briefing he had watched online that afternoon – but gave up because of a “massive queue of calls”.
He tried again at 6am the following morning. After staying on the line more than an hour, he reached an operator who suggested he ring the Ministry of Business. He called them when they opened at 9am and was told to call the Ministry of Health. He got through to the health ministry, which advised him to ring either the Northland District Health Board or the Waitemata District Health Board. Mr Bayly got through to both, but neither could help him either.
“I was driving back from Wellington and it turned into a comedy act because we were listening to [Health Minister] Chris Hipkins on the radio announce that all affected businesses had been contacted.
By that stage two news organisations had managed to get hold of us, but nobody from the New Zealand Government,” he says.
Similar stories are told by the owners of Joseph Taylor Homewares (Mangawhai Heads), Maungaturoto 2ndhand shop and the South Head General Store.
“I found out my shop was affected on Sunday night and stayed up late expecting a call from the Ministry – no calls, no emails, no nothing. I did not know what to do in the morning so I kept the premises closed,” Maungaturoto 2ndhand owner Nicole Williams says.
“There were only 30 businesses to get in touch with on Sunday. I’m pretty sure someone could have done that on Sunday night.”
In the morning, Ms Williams tried the Covid Helpline, but gave up after a two-hour wait. She then tried the Health Ministry and was told to ring the Northland DHB public health unit. She rang the DHB and they told her they didn’t have a public health unit. However, a public health nurse did call back with advice about an hour later.
Businesses says health officials did eventually reach businesses on Monday afternoon, often claiming they had been trying to reach them earlier without success – a claim businesses say is ridiculous.
Ms Williams maintains she was easily accessible via phone, email and Facebook, a sentiment echoed by Joseph Taylor Homewares owner Angela Chamberlain.
“There were no missed calls on my phone and no emails. If they had called they would have just kept trying and trying – it’s not something you take lightly,” she says.
Scott, a shop assistant at South Head General Store, says when the store learned its business was affected on Sunday night, it immediately posted the news on its Facebook page to warn the community and soon afterwards the store was receiving calls from media outlets.
“If the media could find our phone number at 9.30pm that night, I’m sure the health department could have as well,” he says.
In the absence of Ministry advice, all the businesses contacted by Mahurangi Matters took their own protective measures such as closing their business, initiating deep cleaning and ensuring exposed staff got tested for Covid. In each case, their actions were as stringent and sometimes more so than the requirements of the Ministry.
But the laxity of the Ministry and the fact that it left them in the dark for so long has left them frustrated and angry. Scott says particularly, in the light of new and more dangerous strains of the virus.
“This could cripple us all. We’re a small business and if we go under there’s going to be tens of thousands of others that will too,” he says.
Meanwhile, a Ministry of Health spokesperson has denied the businesses’ claims, saying the Ministry kept calling and calling businesses on Sunday but got no response from the ones Mahurangi Matters spoke to. The Ministry claims all affected businesses were reached by 11.47am on Monday.
The Ministry failed to respond to questions about what businesses could have done differently to secure the information they sought, nor why they were redirected to other agencies.