Pakistan players likely caught virus during flight or just prior - NZ director of public health

Most of Pakistan's players congregated for the New Zealand tour after having been part of a busy home season AFP via Getty Images

Half a dozen Pakistan players who tested positive days after arrival in New Zealand "likely picked up the infection just prior to their leaving for New Zealand, or during their travels" to the country, New Zealand director of public health Dr Caroline McEnlay has told ESPNcricinfo.

McEnlay did not rule out the possibility that the virus may have been incubating in players even as they travelled to New Zealand, although she did confirm that the squad had met all requirements before flying. "This is possible - it does take a few days after exposure before the disease develops," she said. "Pre-departure testing does help in identifying people who have current infection but it will not detect people who have very recently been exposed to the virus.

"They were required to take a Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test and be symptom-free before departing for New Zealand. Of the 54 team members that arrived, one team member was symptomatic on arrival in Auckland and was taken to the managed quarantine hotel in Auckland (Jet Park) to be tested. The test returned negative. The remaining 53 members flew to Christchurch and to the managed isolation facility at the Chateau on the Park."

The squad flew to New Zealand from Lahore via Dubai, where they changed planes. The plane stopped at Kuala Lumpur for refuelling though the squad stayed on-board. After landing in Auckland, they then boarded a chartered flight to Christchurch. Before leaving Lahore, 55 players and support staff quarantined at a hotel in Lahore for two nights prior to departure. One of the party, Fakhar Zaman, became symptomatic before departure and did not make the trip.

The Pakistan team doctor and director of medicine Dr Sohail Saleem told Jang newspaper that he was taken aback by the volume of positive tests returned in New Zealand, given they had all tested negative before flying out, and is committed to finding out how this had happened.

Most of the players congregated after having been part of a busy home season of cricket, playing in the National T20 Cup, some having been involved in the series against Zimbabwe, the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy and the PSL. By the time they flew out, the squad as a whole had undergone at least three, and in many cases, four tests (including the one at the hotel) since October; it was then that the PCB had started finalising names of those who would be traveling. These players underwent tests after the Zimbabwe series, one before the PSL began and one after the final (over two dates to account for all four teams). Those tests were staggered over more than a month and were part of the nearly 3000 Covid-19 tests the PCB conducted as a whole during that portion of the season, although there were breaches of the bio-secure bubbles and instances of players falling ill at various events.

As per New Zealand's requirements, the PCB carried out one test pre-departure while in the bubble at the hotel, and ensured the entire squad was negative and that nobody with symptoms flew. That was different to the requirements ahead of Pakistan's other major tour this year, to England, at a time when England was still in the midst of the first wave of the pandemic. Ahead of that tour, the PCB carried out two tests, including an antibody test. Players had been together for seven days in a hotel and had to test negative twice before flying to England - and that too on a chartered flight.

McEnlay also confirmed that while there were "a number of breaches" of New Zealand's isolation management policies initially, the players and support staff had maintained full compliance after that. "There have been no further reported breaches," she said.

All but one member of the travelling party was released from the managed isolation facility (MIQ) earlier today, after everyone returned a negative test. "One case will remain in the Christchurch quarantine facility until fully recovered," McEnlay said. "One person repeatedly tested negative and is being released from the Auckland quarantine facility today, where they had been transferred on arrival as a precaution."

Pakistan are scheduled to play three T20Is and two Tests against New Zealand later this month, with the first game taking place on December 18. As there are currently zero community cases in New Zealand, the players will not be required to form a bio-secure bubble now that they are out of managed isolation, and therefore have no restrictions placed on them anymore. "After extensive testing and completion of their time in managed isolation in Christchurch, the Canterbury DHB medical officer of health is satisfied these people pose a very low risk to the community," McEnlay said.