NZ to trial self-isolation for some vaccinated returnees - Ardern

Anna Whyte
Source: 1News

Quarantine-free travel could be in New Zealand's future for returnees vaccinated against Covid-19, as New Zealand looks to reconnect to the world.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a new four-step plan and a risk-based quarantine system in New Zealand's phased border re-opening, looking to begin from the start of 2022.

New Zealand will also conduct a small trial of self-isolation for some vaccinated Kiwi returnees this year, to test the re-opening strategy. 

It also came as the Government decided to speed up the vaccination rollout, with all New Zealanders 16 and over able to book their Covid-19 vaccine from September 1, just under three-weeks' away. That coincided with the move to extend the time between doses out to six weeks from three. 

Today, the four-step plan was released to reconnect 'New Zealanders to the world'. 

"Our plan is to reopen in a phased way where we assess and check before taking each step," Ardern said. 

"While Covid keeps changing, we must keep changing too."

Step 1 – Immediate response and pre-general population vaccination (included 14 days' MIQ for all non-bubble countries). 

Step 2 – The general population vaccination rollout and the development of resources such as trialling the pilot scheme of safe alternatives to MIQ and development on vaccine passports and testing information. 

Step 3 – Phased implementation of the three new risk pathways, alert levels still in place but lockdowns are less likely. 

Step 4 – Quarantine free travel for all vaccinated travellers who return a negative Covid-19 test, testing at the border, and booster vaccinations possibly needed. 

Ardern announced today the phased approach to re-opening borders would be a "new, individual risk-based border" setting to create low, medium and high-risk pathways into New Zealand, starting from next year. 

It could only begin once enough people were vaccinated. 

"That means the nature of your entry into New Zealand will be dependent on a couple of key things, in particular your vaccination status, and where you have been for the last 14 days," Ardern said. 

Low risk: Quarantine free entry for vaccinated travellers who have been in low risk countries.

Medium-Risk: Self-isolation and/or reduced MIQ for vaccinated travellers who have been in medium risk countries. 

High-Risk: Full 14 days in MIQ and testing for unvaccinated travellers and all travellers who have been in very high risk or high risk countries. 

In preparation, the Government would trial a self-isolation pilot between October and December to test if it would be safe. Ardern said this would be a group in the hundreds, "not thousands". 

"Businesses and organisations that need to send staff overseas will be invited to express interest in participating in the pilot."

Ardern said the rest of this year would be used to prepare for the new system. 

That included, "work on the development of a traveller health declaration system, investigating new testing technology for rapid testing on arrival at airports and reliable pre-departure testing as well as piloting self-isolation arrangements for some New Zealanders and strengthening other public health measures such as contact tracing". 

Ardern said the key to maintaining the approach would be the elimination strategy, which was why the vaccination rollout was brought forward. 

"If we open our borders now, we will lose the freedoms and advantages we have achieved so far. If we give up our elimination approach too soon there is no going back, and we could see significant breakouts here."

"Therefore, the first step in our plan is speeding up the vaccination process to ensure everyone is at least partially vaccinated as soon as possible to reduce the risk and impact of Delta entering the country."

Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall said "absolute certainty" could not be provided in the future of Covid. 

"High level of vaccination will help avoid the need for lockdown and the more people who get vac the more possibility for future movement."

Yesterday’s border reopening report advised a phased re-opening of the border from 2022 after the vaccine rollout was completed. 

The strategic Covid-19 public health advisory group led by Sir David said that New Zealand's elimination strategy would remain viable even when borders open, but warned the delta variant means quarantine-free travel before high vaccine uptake was risky.

Sir David said that globally, Covid was winning the war. 

"Our allies have let us down. Countries that could have eliminated never tried or threw in the towel."

He said by the end of the year, New Zealand's adult population should be vaccinated.

"By then we could be facing a new variant that is even more challenging than Delta."

He said by then, the world should know more about immunity, have better tests and hopefully better treatments. 

Sir David said the most important factor was to vaccinate as many people as possible, minimise the number of people bringing the virus into the country. 

It came as Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins yesterday said even a handful of Delta cases in the community would lead to a 'short, sharp move' to Alert Level 4 lockdown.

ACT called the announcement of the plan ahead a "step in the right direction, but New Zealanders will be asking why it has taken so long". 

"The Government’s announcement that low-risk travellers might be able to enter the country without MIQ sometime in 2022 will sound like a distant dream for separated families and struggling businesses," leader David Seymour said. 

Opposition leader Judith Collins also called it a step in the right direction, but said "speeding up and effectively rolling out the Covid-19 vaccination programme is the most important thing to do right now".

"While vaccination numbers are finally rising, we are still the slowest in the OECD and 120th in the world," Collins said. 

"This is not the ‘front of the queue’ we were promised and is simply not good enough considering the heightened risk from new variants."

"The Government also hasn’t ordered any Pfizer booster shots for next year, despite many other countries ordering hundreds of millions of doses."

Flight Centre NZ managing director David Coombes said they would be advising their customers to vaccinate "and are already actively supporting and encouraging Flight Centre employees to get their vaccinations too". 

"The proposed path from Government does, however, appear to be a long one, with no clear movement for at least six months," he said. 

"We would appreciate an estimated timeline, even if dates aren’t set in stone, so that, as a business we give more guidance to our many customers.

"For our corporate customers, we are excited by the idea of a trial in the coming months of more palatable quarantine alternatives, like home-stay, or shorter MIQ stints."

Professor Michael Plank of Te Pūnaha Matatini told the Science Media Centre the roadmap ahead looked sensible, once the vaccine rollout was complete. 

"A crucial question is whether border relaxation will happen before we have vaccinated children under 16.

"If it does, we will almost certainly see outbreaks spreading through schools. Whether to vaccinate children is a complex question and needs a careful analysis of risks and benefits."

Lesley Gray of Otago University also told Science Media Centre the possibility of MIQ free travel in 2022 needed to ensure returning Kiwis could be adequately screened for negative pre- and post-departure Covid tests.