Dispute over advice: Richard Berry and his wife Keiko Hirokawa


A Queenstowner’s shocked and concerned the government’s Covid-19 Healthline this week allegedly gave him and his wife misleading advice.

But Healthline operator, the National Telehealth Service, denies that’s the case after reviewing its calls with the couple.

One thing is clear about the dispute: even as we went to Alert Level 2 on Thursday, people with potential Covid-19-related symptoms should call Healthline to arrange a test.

Resort man Richard Berry says when his wife, Keiko Hirokawa, picked up a temperature, cough and sore throat on Monday night, she reported the symptoms in three calls, allegedly to Healthline, the following morning.

Listening in to the third call, he heard the call taker tell his wife ‘what do you need to have a test for, because you’ll recover by yourself?’

Berry says at 6.30am on Tuesday he’d rung his boss to tell him he wouldn’t be going to work, in line with his workplace’s strict policies.

But he says when his wife told the call taker in the final call he wasn’t going to work, she was told ‘no, no, he can go to work if he doesn’t have symptoms’.

Berry says he lost his cool at that point and took the call over.

‘‘I said, ‘what the hell? I’m not allowed to go to work, we’re still at [Alert] Level 3, it’s against the law’.’’

After this, Berry says the call taker apologised and suggested his wife see someone.

‘‘But if I hadn’t kicked up, for most people it would be like, ‘oh well, I don’t have to get the test, I’ll just stay at home’.’’

Berry says what worries him most is ‘‘how many other people have been told, ‘no, you don’t need a test because if you’ve got the virus you’ll get over it’?’’

‘‘Doesn’t the government have to know if there’s anybody around with the virus, so we can
stop the spread?’’

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s repeatedly said people should get tested for the virus ‘‘if you even have a sniffle or the slightest sore throat’’ so that isolation and contact tracing can prevent another outbreak.

However, National Telehealth Service chief executive Andrew Slater says they’ve got records of only two phone calls with Hirokawa and are confident ‘‘the advice given was correct’’ in both.

Slater says Hirokawa was told in the first call, in response to the symptoms she described, to get tested, and that Berry could also go for a test.

He thinks when Hirokawa called the local testing centre, she was told she needed to call Healthline.

‘‘There seems to be some confusion, because at that point she could have said she already had spoken to us.’’

In her second call to Healthline, she was told to call the testing centre again and tell them she had already spoken to Healthline, which Hirokawa agreed to do.

But Berry says the errant advice came in a third call, when they called their local medical centre but were diverted.

A machine operator, he says if his wife had tested positive for Covid-19 and he’d gone to work, ‘‘I could have shut down the whole building industry in Queenstown — we’ve got 30 guys working on-site’’.

Fortunately, Hirokawa’s symptoms had subsided by the time she saw her GP on Tuesday.