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Relief turned to resignation soon after NZ104 touched down, to herald a homecoming of sorts for 50 expat Kiwis biding time for 336 hours to join the team of five million.
The passengers were aware their evacuation from Australia was not necessarily going to end in Auckland, with Hamilton, Rotorua, Wellington and Christchurch also potential destinations for managed isolation.
So when the police officer boarded the aircraft all hope was lost for this Cantabrian when, after a perfunctory welcome, he informed us we will be boarding a bus … to Hamilton.
At least the six passengers in premium economy could mask their initial disappointment – face coverings were pretty much mandatory once we arrived at a near-deserted Sydney Airport five hours earlier.
Once we boarded one of two buses, however, and headed out of Manukau, one woman was bold enough to articulate what most of us were thinking: “At least I’m not spending three grand to stay in Hamilton.”
The cost of managed isolation for returning New Zealanders had been a sore point for some taxpayers, so much so Waikato DHB staff at the Distinction Hamilton Hotel and Conference Centre recommended we not publicise our 14-day internment.
Therefore if you’re reading this aghast, remember your prime ministers’ words – “be kind.”
Mobile phones pinged with sympathetic texts after a passenger discovered we were headed to the Distinction, apparently the only quarantine facility under army control at that stage.
A couple of weeks later a family-of-five broke out of the property after returning from Brisbane to attend a funeral.
We arrived in darkness and a member from then Tainui lightened the mood with mihi whakatau and karakia.
“We’re here to help you through the 14 days. We’ve got a lot of activities that we do after your day three swabs. We’re also here to help with any wellness or welfare issues that you may need support for. Kapai?”
Once those pleasantries were complete we were funnelled to a reception area where – spaced 2m apart – we swept up a chocolate fish, peanut slab and can of Fresh Up before the first of several health assessments.
The interrogation covered the same questions posed before our passports were checked broadly:
“Have you come into contact with anyone who has tested positive to Covid-19? Are you feeling sick? Are you on medication? Do you have any mental health issues?”
• How was the food?
The Distinction’s catering crew ensured that of all the ailments Waikato DHB staff were nervous about, starvation wasn’t among them. Three meals a day plus snacks. Breakfast was a set menu, with warm options on five of seven days. There was an element of pot luck with lunch and dinner – they had to be selected for the 14 days on first your night. Options included grilled salmon, pork redang, butter chicken, fajitas and lamb shank.
• Can you get booze and smokes?
Beer and wine could be purchased in moderation. The cider and beer was $4 a pop, wine was $25 a bottle across a range including pinot gris and rose bubbles. A pack of $20 equals $40. You could order food and essential items – but no alcoholic beverages – from the local supermarket.
•How was the room?
Fortunately spacious enough to pace up and down when it was too wet to stretch outside. No room cleaning service but you could change the linen every three days if you wanted to make the bed. Two laundry bags (10 items per bag) gratis then $40 per load.
• How dull was it?
Set meal times, the daily health check, the Government’s 1pm press conference after the Auckland outbreak and a window to do laps of the car park meant the day was quite regimented and time passed relatively quickly for me. An acquaintance under quarantine in Auckland didn’t quite agree, messaging this sarcastic response when asked how her day nine was going: “Went to the beach, had an ice cream, got my nails done and had a drink with the girls. You know … same old, same old. Yours?”
• What measures are taken to treat cabin fever?
Returnees are given an 84-page managed isolation information dossier. Pages 31 to 66 are devoted to looking after your well-being during isolation. Contact details are included for Lifeline, Depression Helpline, Youthline and the Suicide Crisis Helpline. There is assistance for family members returning for funerals.
The Covid-19 healthline called on day two to check on my state of mind and coincidentally a nurse asked if I’d had any suicidal thoughts hours before the Crusaders hosted the Highlanders on day nine. I suggested she check up again after full-time if they hadn’t wrapped up Super Rugby Aotearoa. False alarm.
• Are you allowed out of the room?
Only for the health check, and exercise from 0730 to 1730. There were also Zumba, flax weaving and Mau Rakau (Maori martial arts) courses. You were confined to your room when new flights arrived and until a woman on NZ104 was evacuated after testing positive to Covid-19 after her day three swab.
• What happens at the daily health check?
Your temperature is taken (in the ear) and you are asked in no particular order if you have a cough, trouble sleeping, any anxiety, a fever, sore throat, abdominal pain, sore joints, headache, breathing difficulties, vomiting and or diarrhoea. The 4sec Covid-19 swab is taken on days three and 12.
• Is there interaction with the hotel staff, private security and defence force personnel?
Minimal outside of a greeting and explanation on why you’re outside your room. Unlike Melbourne where an amorous guard and Covid-carrying returnee combined to initiate a major outbreak, the Distinction Hotel staff treated you with suspicion, dropped your food outside and scuttled down the corridor, and that’s not a criticism.
• How’s the mood when you pass the second Covid-19 swab and are free to leave?
A sense of gratitude at the assistance provided to return home, a sense of accomplishment that you emerged with your faculties intact and a sense of relief – until you realise you’re still in Hamilton for another night before the final leg of the journey.