Wellington Scoop

Grant Guilford says universities can manage “vanishingly small risk’ of returning Chinese students

Report from RNZ
Universities are scrambling to convince officials they can safely manage an influx of students from China if the Covid-19 travel ban is relaxed – and they insist a full-scale quarantine is not required.

New Zealand’s borders are currently closed to all foreign travellers coming from mainland China, but universities want an exemption for tertiary students.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday signalled she was open to the idea, but only if the public could be assured of their safety.

Speaking to RNZ, Victoria University vice-chancellor Grant Guilford said he had “no doubt” the universities could manage the risk. “We are very confident we’ve got this one. We’ve got the protocols in place and can manage it all.”

Guilford – who spearheads the Universities NZ committee on international policy – said the sector was proposing that foreign students be treated in the same way as returning New Zealand citizens and be required to self-isolate for 14 days after arrival.

“There’s a risk of discrimination if we require more of a Chinese student than we require of our own residents. We do need to be very careful about getting too extreme in these requirements.”

An estimated 6000 students were believed to be stuck in China, of which about 2000 were first-year students, he said.

Guilford said the likelihood of them being affected by the coronavirus and bringing it to New Zealand was “vanishingly small”.

But in order to ensure people’s safety and allay their concerns, the universities were proposing the exemption apply only to students outside of Hubei province where the virus originated.

Students would be met by campus staff at the airport and informed of the self-isolation requirements. They would then be taken to their accommodation – whether that be with extended family, homestays or small university-provided units.

“We’re not talking about finding an army base in the back-and-beyond and chucking them into that,” Guilford said.

International students did not usually stay in the large hostels, but those would be avoided as an accommodation option, he said.

Universities would check in with the students on a daily basis and conduct a health check at the end of the fortnight.

“We’re also very open to audit of this by the public health authorities within the region – and I think that would be a fair thing for the government to expect of us.”

Guilford said it was critical that New Zealand get the decision right – and quickly – as hundreds of millions of dollars were on the line for the country.

“Fundamentally, it goes to a matter of trust between China and New Zealand – and if we blow this one, don’t treat these young people well, the damage extends well beyond to every other sector that has anything to do with China.”

If China pulled its support for New Zealand as a study destination, its young people would simply go elsewhere, he said.

“They [will] enrol in Canada or the UK which did not put a travel ban in place and have made sure the students in China are very aware of that.”

Guilford said the government would be acting out of fear, rather than evidence, if it refused to relax the travel ban.

“There is no doubt based on the evidence that this can be managed, but of course, we are in a highly political environment and we’ve got people’s understandable anxieties to take into account.”

Speaking at her weekly press conference yesterday, Ardern outlined the key condition for any exemption.

“We would need to be satisfied that any health risk could be practically managed, with the education sector able to reassure us and the public that it has credible self-isolation and accommodation plans in place.”

The travel restrictions are reviewed every 48 hours, but any exemption would need sign-off from Cabinet, meaning a breakthrough is unlikely before Monday.


  1. TrevorH, 25. February 2020, 10:10

    Nearly eighty countries and/or their national airlines have imposed travel restrictions on China, including British Airways and Air Canada. According to the latest reports from Europe we are on the verge of a pandemic, confronting a disease to which everyone is potentially susceptible because we are all “immunologically naive” to it. Covid-19 is a disease that fills the lungs with mucous and kills by inducing septic shock as the patient’s immune system goes into overdrive. Self-isolation is a joke. Grant Guildford however seems more concerned about his university’s (whatever name it goes by now) revenue?

  2. Architectra, 25. February 2020, 15:09

    “Vanishingly small”? How can he say that? This is spurious self-interest prevailing over prudent risk management. The expert medical information available on the website for the Lancet refutes his claims. Where is the rigour of university-standard research?
    Ironically, the one university with some scope to move in this is Waikato, which has a campus in China.
    The students currently at NZ universities need responsible protection from this risk, not subjection to Dr Guilford’s “guinea pig” approach.
    Will the universities compensate any who are infected if the government yields to this economic blackmail? Of course not.

  3. Lezie McGrind, 25. February 2020, 15:35

    Either it is a uber deadly pandemic flu or it’s not and only if it’s not would they be considering breaking the quarantine.

  4. Hmmmmm, 26. February 2020, 7:52

    He can’t work out how to label his organization, but says Coronavirus is a doddle? OK Boomer

  5. Anon, 26. February 2020, 8:59

    He’s saying there was no need to quarantine and it’s not a pandemic.

  6. Marion Leader, 26. February 2020, 9:02

    This “OK Boomer” business is ageist and an example of people using double standards. Such people would be the first to complain if reference were made, for instance, to the “weaaker sex”. The language is equally discriminatory.

  7. Alan Cave, 26. February 2020, 15:45

    Ridiculous. The only better place than a university to incubate a virus in a population is on a passenger boat.

  8. Dope, 26. February 2020, 16:52

    Grant Guilford – vice chancellor / marketing guru / virologist. Is there no end to his talents?

  9. Dan Tosfery, 26. February 2020, 18:13

    The Coronavirus death rate of those infected looks to be 1% – double a typical flu virus with 0.05%. The Coronavirus kills mainly the old so students should be okay. It’s the Emeritus Professors who should be worried and the top brass of the Chinese Communist Party.

  10. Homoeconomous, 26. February 2020, 18:27

    Just because he does not want the university to miss out on a lot of money because of a flu doesn’t mean Grant is not a multi talented guy.

  11. Andrew, 26. February 2020, 19:50

    Dan, that is 20 times higher than the flu. Or did you mean to type 0.5%?

  12. TrevorH, 26. February 2020, 20:44

    @Dan Tosfery: from the limited and likely understated figures available, the mortality rate appears closer to 2%. It is a particularly nasty death where the patient suffocates in mucous while their own immune system kills them. That’s maybe why Xi Xinping called it the “devil virus”. The disease is now beyond containment and is spreading in Italy and into Croatia and Austria. The UK is bringing in mass screening and surveillance. The social and economic consequences of Covid-19 are potentially enormous.

    Stop Press: “The latest tracking data (unreliable, but the best we have) is that the mortality rate is 4.0 per cent in Wuhan, 2.8 per cent in Hubei and 0.8 per cent in other regions of China, though all figures are creeping up as slow deaths hit the data. The average morbidity of flu annually is 0.1 per cent; Covid-19 is an order of far greater magnitude.” From today’s Daily Telegraph.

  13. Isabelle D, 27. February 2020, 9:36

    It’s flu season in europe and USA Trev and flu’s (after they have spread) are not containable . Which is probably what Grant was thinking that its pointless to have a quarantine for a flu weeks after it’s spread.

  14. NigelTwo, 27. February 2020, 9:55

    The universities should be planning how they are going to “manage it all” when there is an outbreak in NZ. Let’s face it, that virus is probably already here.

  15. Dan Tosfery, 27. February 2020, 10:37

    @TrevorH – thanks for that information. My mortality rate statistic for Coronavirus was based on Chinese figures for reported cases and reported deaths.

    According to the World Health Organization: “Every winter, tens of millions of people get the flu. Most are only ill and out of work for a week, yet the elderly are at a higher risk of death from the illness. We know the worldwide death toll exceeds a few hundred thousand people a year, but even in developed countries the numbers are uncertain, because medical authorities don’t usually verify who actually died of influenza and who died of a flu-like illness.” Even healthy people can be affected, and serious problems from influenza can happen at any age. People over 65 years old, pregnant women, very young children and people of any age with chronic medical conditions are more likely to get complications from influenza, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus, and ear infections.

    Spanish flu which broke out at the end of WW1 killed between 20 and 100 million and had a fatality rate of 2-3% for the 500 million who caught it.

    H1N1 in 2009 killed between 100,000 and 400,000 of the 10-200 million who caught it – a fatality rate of 0.03%

    Seasonal flu typically kills 300-650,000 a year of the 10-200 million who catch it a year and has a fatality rate of around 0.03%.

    See this source for more facts and figures https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Influenza

    So its early days for Coronavirus based on the H1N1 outbreak.

  16. Architectra, 27. February 2020, 15:09

    Try this for a very detailed overview – on a continuing basis, and with valuable references hyperlinked at the foot of the map.

  17. Ross McComish, 27. February 2020, 15:56

    It’s not about “coronavirus”, it’s about this particular coronavirus, which is known as COVID-19. No one knows very much about it yet, but you can watch the pandemic unfold here. The number of deaths as a percentage of recovered cases in Hubei may be an indication of what we’re in for. I’m no expert, but I’m hoping that those who are will take a precautionary approach to dealing with the situation.

  18. Lilly G, 27. February 2020, 17:27

    Its a Panic-demic. Yet we haven’t hit the WHO morbidity rates(*600,000 annual) for regular flu .

  19. Bozo the Clown, 28. February 2020, 6:49

    Ross we are past precautionary approaches as allegedly the same flu has gone global. The Chinese quarantine for the Corona virus happened after the spread . My advice is don’t buy into the flu panicdemic Keep calm your immune system will work better.

  20. Roy Kutel, 28. February 2020, 8:00

    China’s high incidence and death rate from COVID-19 results from its poor urban air quality and a high smoking rate. Virus is most dangerous where human health particularly lungs are in bad shape.

    GWRC should take note of this when considering the Cost Benefit of transport options? RIP trolley buses!

  21. Nadia Williams-Ortega, 29. February 2020, 8:15

    The Govt’s corona flu virus management is banning people from Iran (+ China) and having health officers eyeballing people arriving at the airport from other alleged outbreak locations for symptoms when many flu carriers don’t have any symptoms.

  22. Kelly M, 29. February 2020, 8:45

    For the students a skype live link to uni lectures could have been set up temporarily for them.