Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Prisoner went to court, later tested positive at Mt Eden jail

A prisoner who arrived at an Auckland jail attended court on Friday when no technology was available for him to appear remotely, and he later tested positive for Covid-19.

More than a dozen people are regarded as contacts and Manukau District Court, a nearby custody unit and police vehicles had to be deep-cleaned.

But legal sources including one who was at the court on Friday say even more staff who were present now have to isolate, and some were not alerted to the situation until today.

After Herald enquiries, police and the Ministry of Justice confirmed the man attended Manukau District Court in person.

The Herald understands the defendant was in Courtroom 4 from 12.05 to 12.21pm.

Officials have said four police officers, five Corrections staff and six prisoners were being treated as contacts.

But correspondence showed more people have been stood down than the number officially reported.

The Herald has been told some of the multiple lawyers stood down had no contact from officials until today.

A legal source, one of several who was at court on Friday, said the officially released list of contacts excluded “casual plus” contacts.

“Casual plus” contacts must get tested immediately, and get tested again on Day 5, which will be this Wednesday.

The courtroom was relatively busy on Friday by New Zealand lockdown standards, and officials struggled to identify everyone who was in court at the relevant time.

The legal source said officials were fixated on a ponderous, bureaucratic chain of command which had not reacted promptly to the Covid-19 case.

“We’re in South Auckland. We’re in the worst possible place,” the source said, referring to Manukau’s location near some of the city’s most enduring Covid sub-clusters.

Secretary for Justice Andrew Kibblewhite this afternoon told justice sector email recipients the Ministry of Health regarded the court as being closed to the public, and therefore not a location of interest.

The New Zealand Law Society today told members: “Four people in the courtroom have been advised to self-isolate and get tested.”

The Herald this evening has sent questions related to the “casual plus” contacts and the defendant’s time in the courtroom to the Justice and Health ministries.

Lawyers told the Herald Auckland District Court has full audiovisual (AVL) access to custody units at Mt Eden, but Manukau District Court still does not.

The Auckland-Mt Eden audiovisual connection was established after a pilot scheme, 10 years ago.

Multiple lawyers today said the degree of business conducted in-person and in close proximity to defendants at Manukau was unusually high by New Zealand standards.

“Nobody gives a s**t about criminal lawyers anyway. We are frontline, dealing with everybody,” one frustrated Manukau lawyer said this evening.

They said Manukau lawyers were dealing with an inadequate AVL system in one of the country’s biggest courts – and that was now clearly putting people’s health or lives at risk.

AVL (or lack thereof) blamed

Despite multiple staff from different agencies now having to isolate, it’s not clear what if anything will be done to expand audiovisual court capabilities.

Ministry of Justice Chief Operating Officer Carl Crafar said the defendant was in police custody and appeared in person at the court at about noon on Friday.

“Based on guidance from the Ministry of Health, the four people who were in the courtroom with the defendant are self-isolating and have been advised to get tested.”

Crafar said if facilities for audio-visual links (AVL) were unavailable, defendants would appear in person.

“Based on guidance from the Ministry of Health, the four people who were in the courtroom with the defendant are self-isolating and have been advised to get tested.”

According to Covid-19 protocols, district courts still conduct priority proceedings at alert level 4, and in-person when AVL is unavailable.

Police said four staff were isolating at home following advice from health officials. They must isolate for 14 days.

Those staff were involved in transporting a man who’d been arrested on a warrant for failing to appear.

“The man was transported to the Manukau Custody Unit in a police vehicle, and his partner taken to another address in a separate police vehicle,” a police spokeswoman said.

“The pair wore face coverings, and all staff wore N95 masks and gloves. There was nothing to indicate to staff that either of the pair were unwell.”

Prison quarantine unit

Earlier today, Corrections Association vice president Paul Dennehy said the prisoner was one of 13 people remanded at Mt Eden and tested for Covid-19 shortly after arriving.

All but one of those prisoners at the central Auckland facility tested negative.

The prisoner was in part of the Tikapa Moana/Firth of Thames area, but inside Counties Manukau’s district health board boundary, before he arrived in metropolitan Auckland.

“The individual and his cellmates have been transferred to the site’s quarantine unit,” Dennehy said.

Dennehy said the Corrections Association was working with management to ensure the situation was handled appropriately.

“It was just a matter of time before someone with Covid came into a prison facility,” Dennehy added.

He said staff were wearing full PPE where necessary.

Director of public health Dr Caroline McElnay confirmed the prisoner had travelled from Counties Manukau.

At the 1pm Government press conference, McElnay said four police officers, five Corrections staff and six prisoners were being treated as contacts.

The man who tested positive had been travelling with another person who was now isolating.

There was no suggestion the prisoner had travelled from outside any area currently in alert level 4.

McElnay said the prisoner and the person who was travelling with him had been co-operative and were following instructions and Covid-19 safety protocols.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern praised health and safety measures at the prison.

“I do want to acknowledge the protocols that are extraordinarily rigorous that have led to this detection,” she said this afternoon.

She said newly arrived prisoners were supposed to wear masks, and were kept separate from other prisoners.

Ardern said the inmate arrived in Mt Eden at 6.45pm on Friday and was tested soon after, which is standard practice.

Staff working with the inmate were in their own pod or bubble and fully vaccinated.

Neil Beales, Corrections chief custodial officer, said the man was secured in his cell at 9.10pm and so had very limited contact with other prisoners and staff.

“All new receptions into custody are transported in a secure vehicle and both prisoners and staff are required to wear PPE,” Beales said in a statement.

“Our prisoner escort vehicles have enhanced cleaning procedures in place to prevent any potential for the virus to spread between movements.”

Beales said Corrections provided information to all affected prisoners and explained health and safety measures to inmates.

He said during alert level 4 the prison was closed to all visitors and only essential staff were on site.

The Herald understood lawyers at Manukau District Court were informed of a positive Covid-19 test result.

Ardern at the 1pm press conference said she did not know of any judges or lawyers having to isolate due to Covid-19 exposure.

During level 4, most lawyers, especially defence counsel, have been working remotely.

But in some recent hearings, judges, registrars and police prosecutors have been in courtrooms.

Corrections officers at one Manukau District Court hearing on Friday were seen wearing surgical gowns, gloves, and masks. Other people in the court were wearing face masks.

During level 4, no new jury trials are starting in the High Court or District Court.

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