Exclusive: Darryn Webb to be replaced as head of managed isolation

The outgoing boss of managed isolation and quarantine has hit out at Kiwis who broke out of their facilities and put the entire nation in danger.

More than a dozen people have escaped from their MIQ facilities, and there have been 76 incidents of rule-breaking since August.

Air Commodore Darryn Webb admits isolation can be difficult for people but the two-week quarantine period is absolutely necessary.

“It’s frustrating because it starts and finishes with personal accountability,” he said.

“All we’re asking is if you want the privilege of coming to New Zealand, you adapt to the need to do 14 days of managed isolation.

“It’s a small price to pay for the benefits that you get at the other end.”

Friday will mark the final day for Webb as head of the MIQ facilities since he started in June.

He is stepping down as the MIQ operation moves into its next phase, with New Zealand Army Land Component Commander Brigadier Jim Bliss to take control from Monday next week.

Webb, 49, says dealing with the escapees was one of the hardest parts of the job, fearing they could unintentionally spread the virus.

However, the number of breaches and breakouts had been minuscule in context of the 76,000-odd Kiwis who have been through MIQ.

Another tough part of the job was having to decide which MIQ exemption applications could be granted.

While many of the stories of those who had been denied were upsetting, Webb said he had to remember they were making those decisions for the greater good.

“There are heart-wrenching, upsetting, real tragedies around the world where people have to get home or want to avoid isolation because of a time-based issue.

“Unfortunately you have to keep asking yourself and reminding yourself that we’re here for the greater good of the country and not the individual.

“That often means you’re not able to meet their needs and that’s really tough.”

Regardless, Webb said he had no regrets from the past six months or about any of the decisions he made at the helm.

“I’m not a particularly regretful person,” he told the Herald on Sunday.

“Things won’t always go perfectly but I’ve always had that adage that it’s not so much about what happens, it’s what happens next.

“I’d be comfortable to say that we’ve not had a particularly high number of avoidable mistakes of a repeat nature.”

Before he was appointed to oversee the MIQ operation, Webb had been involved in the Government’s repatriation planning.

He was thrust into the spotlight when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appointed him head of MIQ in June – and the publicity was something he had to get used to.

But it was nothing compared to the likes of director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, Webb said.

“I remember spending a little bit of time with Ashley and joking with him that everyone knew who he was, it was like walking around with a film star.”

He said the role came about after he was asked to meet Ardern in her office one morning earlier this year.

“I’d never been to the PM’s office before, funnily enough, and didn’t know exactly what the meeting was going to be about,” Webb said.

“She stood up, shook my hand, introduced herself, and then asked me to lead this part of the Government response.

“It was surreal, a real privilege, and a great opportunity but I knew full well it was going to be really hard work and it certainly has been.”

Webb said the role had been tough on family life with the long days, especially when things weren’t going as planned.

Bliss comes into the role after 30 years in the Defence Force, with many of his roles being in operations planning or in leadership.

He has served as the Land Component Commander for the past few years and told the Herald on Sunday he was excited about the new gig.

The commander role sees Bliss assign land forces and also contribute soldiers to overseas operations too.

Asked what advice he was giving Bliss, Webb said the job was all about the people involved, from the MIQ team to the returnees themselves, so he should focus on that.

“It’s all about working together, it’s the classic New Zealand story isn’t it. Working with others to achieve a common aim,” he said.

“One of the best parts of the job is an absolute sense of purpose, no one is wondering why they get out of bed each morning.”

Coming to the end of his time at MIQ, Webb wanted to thank the 4000-odd workers involved, especially the hotel staff up and down the country.

“In simple terms, we couldn’t do this without their help and their support. They’ve been fantastic, they’ve willingly embraced the role, which is tough.”

Webb said he was most proud of the changes the MIQ team had been able to achieve over the past six months under difficult conditions.

“That [comes down to] never being happy with where you’re at and trying to make things better,” he said.

“Growing a sustainable and professional workforce, embedding into MBIE and all the work that we’ve done together, to create something that is sustainable for who knows how much longer … for as long as we’re asked to do it.”

Bliss also praised the MIQ staff and paid homage to his predecessor. He says he’s looking to constantly improve the system and make it more sustainable.

“The period that Darryn has been there is building a plane while they’ve been flying it, so they’ve done a fantastic job doing that,” he said.

“My priorities when I get in there is to certainly engage with those frontline staff, hear their views, see what ideas they have for improving the system.

“Secondly, we’re in a transition or will be in MIQ from the immediate response through to a more sustainable model.”

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