Saturday, 16 Oct 2021

Covid 19 Delta outbreak: How a mundane Manukau court appearance sparked pandemonium

It seemed like a mundane court hearing at the time.

But the accused shoplifter brought into Manukau District Court on Friday triggered a scramble to alert contacts and sent a chunk of Waikato into a bespoke lockdown.

“It was just a routine appearance,” one person who was present in court said.

There were apparently no sniffles, no sneezes, no sign of anything amiss.

The event of most interest and concern at the court that day was the looming appearance of a man charged with the murder of a 16-year-old girl.

But another prisoner arrived in courtroom 4 at about 12.05pm.

He faced 17 outstanding charges of shoplifting, breaching release conditions, theft and trespass.

The custody staff member accompanying him was decked out in full PPE, the prisoner was taken away after 16 minutes, and court business continued.

“As far a possible, the protocols were followed,” the legal source said. “He just slipped through the cracks because he was asymptomatic.”

About six hours after being remanded in custody, the man from Whakatīwai on the Firth of Thames arrived at Mt Eden prison, and was tested for Covid-19.

Over the weekend, news of his positive test result filtered through and officials scrambled to identify who was in court with the prisoner who tested positive for Covid-19.

The Herald understands court management could not access the building over the weekend to retrieve security footage because the court had to be deep-cleaned.

The cleaning blitz extended from the courtroom to the custody unit to a police car.

“Everybody who was in court at the time and the two duty lawyers who interviewed him have been classified as ‘casual plus’ contacts,” a legal source said.

These contacts must get tested again on what in the Covid lexicon is called Day Five. That means tomorrow – when they’ll get tested and then wait to see if they have coronavirus, or can go back to work.

Some affected legal staff are irate at perceived delays in revealing details about the Covid-19 inmate’s appearance.

Another said the broad self-isolation directive was draconian and disruptive.

One lawyer said the court had done the best it could to alert affected people to the Covid-19 risk and subsequent disruption.

But it seems common ground that a lack of adequate audiovisual links (AVL) in Manukau was why a relatively high number of people were in the building that day.

Officials have confirmed the Whakatīwai prisoner appeared in person because no AVL was available.

It was still unclear what if any steps will be taken to improve AVL at Manukau or otherwise prevent a repeat of the Whakatīwai prisoner scenario.

Since yesterday afternoon, attention has been focused on the prisoner’s movements after he was released from Mt Eden on Wednesday, September 8.

He was given his first Covid jab, fitted with an electronic monitoring device, and family collected him from the prison.

The journey from Mt Eden to Whakatīwai is about 86km but the Department of Corrections said the prisoner’s journey took more than two hours.

GPS records suggested he stopped four times, in Mt Albert, in Māngere, at a Pokeno supermarket, and on the roadside near his bail address.

He also picked up Covid-19 on the journey, officials now believe.

His next court appearance is scheduled for this Friday, by AVL.


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