More moves to tighten the country’s borders may be needed on top of the decision to delay the start of the self-isolation scheme for Australian travellers, a professor of public health says.
Photo: RNZ Insight / John Gerritsen
Today, the government announced Cabinet has decided to delay the self-isolation scheme. Instead of travellers being allowed to self-isolate from 17 January the change will take effect from the end of February.
For those who had booked to come home to New Zealand from Australia from 17 January, the government would work with airlines to ensure some MIQ space was available, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said at a media update.
Although, Air New Zealand has already cancelled about 120 flights, mostly from across the Tasman, as a result of the changes.
The rapid spread worldwide of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 is the main reason for the policy rethink.
It is among changes announced today that include a vaccine rollout for five to 11 year olds from January and a reduction in the time to wait for booster shots – from six months to four months.
The changes are being welcomed by public health experts, with Professor Nick Wilson from Otago University saying that the delay in self-isolation was the most important.
He said temporarily turning down the tap on international travellers from countries with the worst Omicron outbreaks (at least for two to three months) may also be needed.
New South Wales officials over the weekend noted Omicron was now likely the dominant strain in the state’s third outbreak, in which today alone it recorded more than 3000 cases.
But Prof Wilson said the government may also need to insist on rapid antigen tests at the airport for international travellers coming into Aotearoa; make more improvements to MIQ facilities in terms of ventilation and avoiding shared spaces such as exercise areas; and re-design the alert level system so that it can rapidly eliminate any outbreaks of the Omicron variant that arise in the community.
“While there is still a lot of uncertainty around the Omicron variant, especially the risk of severe disease, it is wise to try to keep it out of NZ as long as possible and until more is known about this variant,” Prof Wilson said.
Dr Matthew Hobbs, a senior lecturer in public health at the University of Canterbury, said he was concerned that a recent study from Imperial College London showed no clear evidence that Omicron had lower severity than Delta.
“Though it will be disappointing for many, through reviewing and postponing current border reopening plans, New Zealand has bought itself some much needed time while it works out how much of a problem Omicron could be – like the last time we closed the Trans-Tasman bubble.
“It also provides us with a few more crucial months to get the booster shots up and roll out the paediatric vaccines.”
He suggested the vaccination requirement for arrivals could be raised to three doses to reduce the risk of Omicron coming to New Zealand.
“More broadly, we also need to shift our domestic focus to a global perspective. The root of this issue is that the world isn’t doing enough to stop the spread of Covid-19,” Dr Hobbs said.
“… wealthy countries around the world continue to hoard vaccines. This ultimately gives the virus more opportunities to replicate and mutate. Omicron should act as the wake-up call to ensure worldwide equitable vaccine delivery before even more concerning variants emerge.”
Professor Michael Plank, from Te Pūnaha Matatini and the University of Canterbury, said the rapidly growing Omicron outbreak in New South Wales and its spread to other Australian states meant it would almost certainly get into the community in New Zealand within weeks if the country went ahead with border reopening plans in January.
“Delaying reopening plans to the end of February gives us a chance to keep Omicron out until the majority of adults have received their third dose of the vaccine.
“Increasing the MIQ stay to 10 days and shortening the pre-departure test period from 72 to 48 hours are sensible ways to reduce the risk of the highly transmissible Omicron variant leaking out of MIQ. Adding a requirement for a rapid test on the day of the departure would be a useful extra measure.
“Hopefully these measures will keep Omicron contained at the border. But if Omicron does find its way into the community, the government has said it intends to use the red level of the traffic light system to try and control its spread. It’s unlikely this would be sufficient to prevent rapid spread of the variant if community transmission became established.
“Rolling out booster doses as quickly as possible is therefore essential to minimising the risk that Omicron overwhelms our healthcare system.”
Hipkins also noted in the announcement today that the variant would spread quickly if it was in the community, and that public health advice suggests that soon every case coming into our border will be the Omicron variant.
A delay in the phased reopening of the border shows the need for much better border management, the head of Business New Zealand says.
Business New Zealand chief executive Kirk Hope said the decision was disappointing.
He told RNZ’s 5 o’clock Report that a long time ago Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised New Zealanders the smartest border in the world and that was what the country needed to achieve if it was going to manage the ongoing pandemic and its variants.
“What is very clear is that from a business perspective New Zealand can’t be alienated from the world and in order to re-integrate with the world we’re going to have to have some sort of better border management.
“We’ve got investors who are sitting offshore who are willing to come here and invest significant sums of money in New Zealand.
“That will be about business growth which is going to help us repay the debt that has been generated by Covid and they can’t get into the country because of MIQ.
“So we are going to have to change some of the border settings, and do that safely and think about how we’ll do that.”
Read a recent interview with Kirk Hope as part of a series on what Kiwis want for Christmas
Looking back on 2021, Hope said some sectors had continued to do very well and these included businesses in agriculture, horticulture and manufacturing, however, some businesses were getting “decimated”, including those in tourism, hospitality and international education.
Students who used to come to Aotearoa and stay on to contribute to the economy are no longer travelling here.
His plea to the government is to “give businesses a break for a while”.
While government support has been appreciated and has helped with stability, “I think what businesses are really going to need in 2022 is help and certainty around some of those settings,” Hope said.
“…What you don’t want is additional extra costs when you’ve not got necessarily a good pathway to see where you are going to pay for those costs.”
While businesses had learned a lot on how to manage the challenges of the pandemic, he hoped the government would not “push down the regulatory lever too hard” in the new year.
“The big opportunity is around having the world’s smartest border and they should be able to do that quickly.”
*The public health comments in this story were put together by the Science Media Centre. Michael Plank is partly funded by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet for research on mathematical modelling of Covid-19.
Copyright © 2021, Radio New Zealand
Early in the pandemic, the government called for the creation of the world’s smartest border. Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope says he’s still waiting… It’s on his Christmas wish list.
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