What New Zealand COVID quarantine is actually like – why managed isolation is better and worse than we expected

Written by REBEKAH CAMPBELL

August 27, 2020

I’m writing this behind a locked window and wire fence in Auckland’s M-Social Hotel.  Ten days ago, my husband Rod and I, along with our two young children Eve and Bobby, made a strange, nerve-wracking flight across international borders during COVID 19.

Before we left, I searched for accurate accounts: what would our journey entail, and what could we expect on the other side.  A New Zealand Government brochure provided helpful information—but not the details. 

The details of travel and managed isolation are impossible to write up in a booklet, and it’s the details that are difficult for a government to control.  I’ve created this post to share our family’s experience of the journey, of border control, of managed isolation so far—and why everything has been both better and worse than I expected.

Two months ago, my husband landed his dream job in New Zealand, leading Learning Innovation for the New Zealand School Trustees Association (NZSTA).  It was July, Australia’s COVID cases were low and the news media predicted a travel bubble by September.   We’d be able to relocate without quarantine and I could continue my business (learning events), commuting back to Sydney regularly.

But Australia’s second wave hit, and the stark reality of our decision became clear—two weeks in hotel isolation with a two-year old boy and four-year old girl, two of the most energetic, loud and mischievous children to ever scream their way through an airport security line.

I’d heard that New Zealand had closed its border.  Could I book flights?   I called Air New Zealand and discovered that there’s only one flight each day between Sydney and Auckland, none to anywhere else.  No other airlines fly to New Zealand.  And we’d need to apply to Immigration New Zealand for Visas for Rod and the kids (because of the border closure, Australian citizens now need Visas to enter NZ) AND to Australian border control for an exemption allowing us to leave.  Three weeks later, after many multi-hour calls on hold to New Zealand Immigration, we had what we needed. 

I phoned Air New Zealand again.  “When you arrive,” the sales agent said, “you’ll board a bus and learn where you’ll be sent for isolation.  It could be Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington, Rotorua or Hamilton.  Your location depends on which facility has space.”  I imagined restraining Bobby and Eve, one arm around each, while a bus wound up and down hills, Rod fighting to keep masks on their little faces.

We arrived at Sydney airport early on Saturday morning and wheeled our pram, portable cot, two trolleys of bags with children piled on top through the electronic glass doors.  I looked around for police; there were none.  Four giant screens showing departures and arrivals flashed above us: three lines on the first screen, a flight to Hong Kong, to San Francisco and our flight to Auckland.  The rest was blank.  For a second, I remembered the old airport—alive with families, executives, cling-wrapped suitcases, brief cases flying this way and that.

We trundled down to Air New Zealand where a solo check-in man wore a mask behind the counter.  He took our temperatures and called customs to make sure we had the travel exemptions we needed, and we loaded everything onto the conveyor belt.  “I’m sorry, you can’t take the pram through security,” he said.  “There won’t be anyone at the plane to collect it for you.”  I handed over the pram, looked at Rod and down to our bags as we silently wondered to each other how we’d manage to restrain the kids and carry our hand luggage.  My only saviour in this moment was that I’d packed two toddler backpacks with dog-leads strapped on, so I could stop them running in opposite directions.

We lined up in the eerily quiet customs line. For the first time – not the last – I sensed fear.  It became a constant companion, pervading the flight, my experience of the other side and our stay in quarantine.

People from all over the world waited on the other side of security.  Wherever had they come from?  Did they have COVID?  What had they touched?  Had they left droplets in the air?  I scanned for people who, I thought, might have come from COVID affected countries.  Bobby and Eve scrambled in different directions while I yelled, “Don’t touch anything!”

Almost everything was shut inside the terminal.  The Duty-Free shop was behind iron roller doors; every other shop was dark and empty like they’d all been robbed.  There was a food court where three vendors sold pre-packaged rolls and yoghurts.  Are the servers all wearing masks?  Could they have picked up the virus from a traveller?  Had they coughed over the food?   Bobby shouted “plane” and ran towards the window.  Eve screamed for a muffin.  I decided it was worth the risk to keep her still.

My stomach was awash with anxiety as we boarded the plane.  I’d read how COVID droplets spread across seats on public transport.  Would we have anyone behind us?   I stepped inside with Bobby running in front as Eve, behind, pole-vaulted with her hands on every seat handle.  I reached for the sanitiser.  

In front of us someone coughed.  I flinched backwards and glimpsed alarm in Rod’s eyes too.  “Eve, move”, I shouted as she came face-to-face with a middle-eastern looking boy of around the same age.  Another feeling hit me: shame.  Am I racist?  I lifted Eve, grabbing under her arms and scooted her past the family while, in front, Bobby fell flat on his face in the aisle.   Then an American accent said something … an American accent!  My risk calculator overloaded.  I grabbed both kids, one arm each and stumbled down the aisle to our seat. 

The Air New Zealand plane was huge with only a scattering of passengers.   Our seats were almost at the back with no one behind us.  Phew.  We plopped into our row while Rod unloaded the bags into empty overhead lockers. 

The flight itself was uneventful.  The flight attendants were noticeably less chatty than usual as they served drinks and food from behind surgical face coverings.  They must feel afraid of us too, I thought.  I felt an edge of fear at using the toilet and constantly wiped everyone’s hands.  Eve and Bobby were remarkably cooperative at wearing their mandatory masks.

We decided to disembark after everyone else and waited for a while after landing.   I strapped the kids back on their leashes and encouraged them gently towards the front imploring “Please please don’t touch” as we exited the aisle.

Our first surprise outside the aircraft was a posse of three police officers.  As we continued along the gangway it became clear that one of the officers was allocated specifically to us, because we were last.  It was her job to make sure everyone off the plane exited through the correct channels.

This is the point where our children’s enthusiasm for the adventure expired.  Bobby ran in one direction, Eve sat on the travelator refusing to take another step.  Like an open drawbridge, I straddled between them.  Rod juggled luggage whilst struggling to re-fit masks that the kids kept throwing on the ground.   The police officer smiled and told us not to rush.

The first stop we came to was a health check.  We lined up behind other passengers before entering a bay with two nurses who checked our temperatures and asked us if we’d had a COVID test before.  We then lined up again for immigration and again for customs. 

I’d read a lot of New Zealand news about controls at ‘The Border’.  I’d heard the Army and the Air Force had been brought in to ensure the country’s security and I’d built up a vague impression of what it might be like.  I’d imagined ‘The Border’ as a machine, a government-run force.  I hadn’t visualised it, so when a friendly face in a beige uniform shot a giant smile to Bobby I had to look twice.  The Army, it seems, bears a name badge that says ‘Nathan’.  He stood straight, but his eyes were warm and welcoming.  That’s when I realised the border isn’t a machine – it’s a collection of humans. 

And it’s the ‘human experience’ that has made this whole process both better and worse than I expected.  Made worse because of my human anxiety and internal conflict.  I felt simultaneously terrified of everyone around me who’d just travelled from all over the world and might be diseased AND ashamed at myself for being a nasty xenophobic person.  Because I desperately wanted my kids to behave, wear their masks, keep quiet and not hold up the rest of the group AND I wanted to give them time, to make sure they felt loved and secure at what must have been a scary time. 

We were ushered onto a bus, guided kindly but firmly by a team of police officers.  I held Bobby on my knee with Eve and Rod on the seat behind us.  By then it was dark, and we had no idea where we were going.  “Kind of like a mystery weekend”, I joked to Rod.  An announcement came over the loud-speaker that we were headed to a hotel called the M-Social in central Auckland.  Phew, not Rotorua.

Thirty minutes later we pulled up in front of the hotel and a jolly woman with long black hair in a ponytail jumped onboard.  “My name is Nicole”, she said from behind a blue mask.  “I’m from the Ministry of Health and I’m in charge of your arrival tonight.  You guys are seriously lucky – this is one of the best hotels in Auckland.  It’s five-star and the food is amazing!”   She laughed. I looked around to see if anyone would join me in a “woohoo”.   Silence.

We were then escorted through a sequence of checks.  There were more army officers with name tags: ‘Matt’ at the door and ‘John’ who wrote down our names.  “Lame?” said John. 

“No, it’s Lane” said Rod pulling his driver’s license from his wallet to show the correct spelling.  John drew his hands back; he couldn’t touch.

The next stop was a nurse’s station where we had to hold open our passports, have our temperatures taken again and answer a barrage of questions.  “Are you on any medication?  Do you have enough to last the two weeks?”  The station was sectioned off by two large transparent pieces of plastic and this is the point where both Bobby and Eve decided that they were done.  Eve darted around the plastic.  I managed to catch her arm and she jolted backwards screaming.  I cuddled her in tight while Bobby escaped under the table towards the nurse.  Rod, at this moment was fumbling in his backpack for passports he’d accidentally left in a suitcase.  There – it was being unloaded from the bus by gloved, masked army officers.  Behind us were police, in front of us army.  There wasn’t a path to the bags and Bobby kept crawling forward.

Under normal circumstances someone would have stepped in.  One of the nurses would have scooped up the toddler and patted him on the forehead.  A hotel porter would have offered to fetch Rod’s bag.  But the situation wasn’t normal.  All three nurses, the officers, the police winced backwards as if Bobby were radioactive.  They couldn’t approach.

Rod collected Bobby from the other side of the table while everyone watched, unsure of the protocol.  The nurse continued: “Are you experiencing any stressful life events?”

“Um….”  I sat splay-legged on the floor with screaming Eve, Rod, still unable to locate the passports, held yelling Bobby as well as all the bags.  “Moving countries during a global pandemic.  These children.”

She smiled.  “Otherwise, you’re OK.”

I nodded.

We reached the check-in desk and were handed key cards. 

“Two rooms!”  I wanted to jump through the glass screen and hug the hotel receptionist. 

Another army officer helped us up a lift with cling-wrap over the floor numbers and to our conjoining rooms at the end of the corridor.

A white envelope on the desk contained the terms of our stay.  These included:

  • We’d be isolated for exactly 336 hours (14 days) from the time our plane touched the ground in Auckland (5.05pm Saturday).
  • We must wear Ministry of Health supplied masks (not our own) whenever we answered our door and any time outside of our room.
  • Breakfast, lunch and dinner would be provided to our room daily.  Additional room service was available at cost.
  • We were able to order from the local Countdown supermarket or pharmacy (although we discovered that Countdown took three days to deliver).
  • Alcohol was allowed but any orders were monitored, and the staggered delivery controlled by reception.
  • Laundry bags were collected on Tuesdays and linen on Fridays.
  • No house-keeping service but cleaning products and a vacuum cleaner were available on request.
  • An exercise area was open between 8.30am and 4pm each day (see security in the lobby).
  • There was a designated smoking area on the ground floor terrace.
  • Guests were to only use hotel reception in an emergency.  Only one ‘bubble’ (family) in the lift at a time.  No loitering anywhere outside the rooms.  We had to stay at least 2 metres from any guests outside our bubble.  If we came into contact with another guest, and that guest turned out to have COVID, then we would have to stay in isolation for another 14 days.
  • We’d receive COVID tests on Day 3 and Day 12 of our stay.

The next morning, we emerged after a good sleep and tucked into a delicious breakfast left at our front door by a masked deliverer who didn’t wait to be thanked.   We admired the beautiful Auckland Harbour view and the kids discovered that couches make excellent trampolines and the bed sheets turn into tents. 

A nurse and an army officer appeared at our door just after ten to take our temperatures.  “Has anyone had a runny nose, cough, unexplained fatigue…?”, they asked.   Anyone displaying symptoms, we learned, would be transferred along with family to the ‘Jet Park Quarantine Facility’ which didn’t sound appealing. 

“No, we’re all good”, said Rod.

An hour later we masked-up and ventured downstairs to find the exercise area.   I’d imagined an outside terrace, maybe a few treadmills or bike machines, somewhere for the kids to play.   A woman and a man in Air Force uniforms greeted us at the bottom of the lift and showed us out to the door of a carpark and opened the gate. 

This is where the reality of isolation set in.  The ‘exercise area’ was one floor of a dark underground carpark with a roof so low you could bump your head by jumping.   A row of socially distanced people in masks walked around the short square perimeter in circles.  I looked at Rod: “Is this it?”  He cast his eyes around the four corners of the carpark, back to the security guard and sighed.  Eve clung to the side of my t-shirt; Bobby plucked two words from his limited vocabulary: “Back room ” .

The second morning was dull and grey outside.   Bobby stood at the hotel room door optimistically saying “Park”.  

Eve watched the construction workers digging up concrete from the glass window.  “You told me there were chickens in New Zealand,” she said.

By the time the nurse and Air Force arrived at our door we were all feeling blue.

“I’ve got a runny nose”, Eve piped up from the back. 

I shook my head: “No you don’t.”

“I do,” she said blowing fragments of snot from her flared nostrils.

“She really doesn’t,” I assured the nurse.

Afterwards we sat with Eve in the bedroom.  “Why did you say that honey?” I asked.

She looked at the floor, mouth pouted.  “Do they send you home if you’re sick?”

Rod and I looked at each other, our hearts hurting.  “No, they don’t send you home,” I said.

“But I want to see my friends.”

It’s the human side of isolation that’s so difficult.  I feel guilty for putting my children through two weeks without sunlight, too much fancy food and way too much screen-time.  I’m scared whenever I leave the room.  What will the kids touch? 

But, now we’re at Day 10, I’m happy to report that we’ve found our rhythm, and again, it’s the human experience that changed everything.  It’s the cook ‘Mai’ at our hotel who goes out of her way to call me each morning and check meal preferences, even drawing a little love heart on the meal pack she made with soft veggies when I had a sore tooth.  It’s Lisa the Air Force officer who along with Susan the nurse takes our temperatures each morning.  “I’d usually be fixing helicopters”, she said.  “I volunteered to do this.  I wanted to help.”

Bobby and Eve have adapted too.  Eve discovered that the wheel barriers in the carpark make excellent balance beams and Bobby squeals as he runs up and down the ramp.  We’re enjoying lots of family dance time and this morning we even found an optimistic Bobby waiting at the door.  “Carpark?”

There’s been a lot on the news here about ‘The Border’.  According to the headlines it’s ‘Shambolic’ and ‘A Debacle’.   As someone who has just crossed The Border, I can only share how impressed we’ve been with the meticulous organisation of every step in the process.   The police at the airport, army officers with masks and gloves handling luggage, the cordoned-off nurses’ stations with plastic screens, the cling wrap covering lift buttons, the hand sanitiser EVERYWHERE.

But what makes the experience tough and what makes the experience warm is also the weakness.  The Border isn’t a machine; it’s not a computer you can just tune up or down.  It’s thousands of humans, each doing their bit to keep New Zealand safe from COVID-19 and  support people who need to enter their country.   Even with the very best systems and checks (which NZ does appear to have), where there are humans, there’s a risk.  For example, a few days ago a guard noticed that Eve seemed upset and offered to let her speak into his walkie talkie.  We politely whisked her away, knowing she couldn’t get too close.  The guard wasn’t deliberately slacking off.  He just saw a sad four-year old and tried to cheer her up.  It was an error, but a human one.  I don’t think it’s ever going to be possible to eliminate every single incident like this. 

Right now, it’s just after 4 on Tuesday afternoon and, as lovely as everyone here has been to us, we’re counting down to 5.05pm Saturday.  Rod is excited to join his work at NZSTA and support school leadership in New Zealand.  I can’t wait to enrol Bobby and Eve in Kiwi pre-school and establish a Wellington office for my business.  We all feel grateful for the exceptional care we’ve received in our isolation hotel and hope we can make a contribution to the community and return the favour.

Bobby loves his couch trampoline but we are excited to leave!
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