Judith Collins is calling on the Government to open the trans-Tasman quarantine-free travel bubble by Christmas to fully vaccinated people who test negative for Covid-19.
The National leader said there was “no logical reason” that people who met those requirements shouldn’t be able to come to the country without having to pass through the MIQ system.
“Where is there risk? There is no risk. You can’t transmit Covid if you don’t have Covid,” she told reporters on Tuesday morning.
“The risk is that this country goes down this rabbit hole thinking we can be some sort of hermit kingdom and not be able to come out of that without this fear of everything.
“We need to get on with our lives. We need to be able to get people vaccinated but we need to do it without fear and without threats.”
However, the Government has signalled it wasn’t likely to relax international borders until the first quarter of 2022.
“There is a different risk profile for international cases compared to domestic cases,” Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said.
He said community cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand were more likely to have links to existing cases and could be contact traced.
If people brought the virus from overseas, that could spread to others before it was detected, Hipkins said.
“When you're trying to put out a bushfire, you don't go around striking matches,” he said, as New Zealand recorded 215 community cases on Tuesday.
“We are going to get to a point where there’ll be freer movement at the border and we will need to deal with that at that point. But, we’re not at that point right now.”
Hipkins revealed in the House on Tuesday afternoon, after questions from National’s Covid-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop, that 2544 travellers from Australia arrived in New Zealand between August 23 and November 15.
Of that group, no vaccinated people tested positive for Covid-19 while in MIQ, while three unvaccinated people tested positive for the virus.
“While that’s a small number, it still signifies the risks that exist with overseas returnees,” Hipkins said.
Bishop said that showed the risk of allowing fully vaccinated people with negative pre-departure tests to travel to New Zealand quarantine-free was “basically zero”.
The Government is expected to make an announcement about international borders soon, with MIQ capacity severely restricting the number of people able to enter the country.
The recent halving of stay times to seven days in MIQ facilities is expected to free up about 1500 more MIQ rooms a month, according to Hipkins.
“I’m absolutely aware that the restrictions we’ve put in place at the border have put some people in some difficult positions. No one takes that lightly,” he said.
In the meantime, the uncertainty has prompted Air New Zealand to cancel more than 1000 flights through to December 1 between New Zealand and Australia. The cancellations are expected to impact 20,000 customers.
The airline’s chief customer and sales officer Leanne Geraghty said the move was because the Government had not given indications that quarantine-free travel between the two countries would re-commence in 2021.
"This will be particularly tough news for families and friends who were hoping to catch up over Christmas.
“I appreciate how difficult this news will be, but our hands are tied until border restrictions ease, and we receive further clarity from the New Zealand Government,” Geraghty said.
The airline continues to operate reduced numbers of ‘red flights’, which require quarantine, from Sydney and Melbourne to New Zealand for those with spots in MIQ.
Hipkins said the decision was a commercial one, and that the Government had been in talks with the national carrier.
Thousands of people from both sides of the Tasman took advantage of quarantine-free travel between April and August, albeit with disruptions from states and territories as they grappled with Delta.
Epidemiologist: New Zealand isn’t ready for a trans-Tasman bubble yet
Epidemiologist and University of Canterbury associate professor Arindam Basu told 1News he did not think New Zealand was currently ready to re-open the trans-Tasman bubble.
Basu said the country should reach a higher vaccination coverage first and make sure that coverage was equitable before considering it.
He said there was an argument that children under 12, who currently aren’t eligible for the Pfizer vaccine yet, should be vaccinated before border restrictions are eased.
“We’re not there yet. At some point, we’re probably going to reach that point. But, definitely, unfortunately, we are not in a position from a purely scientific and epidemiological point of view,” he said of the time a trans-Tasman bubble could re-open.
Even if only fully vaccinated travellers who had tested negative for Covid-19 are able to come to New Zealand from Australia, the risk of importing the virus wasn’t zero, Basu said.
Albeit comparatively rarer, breakthrough infections among vaccinated people could mean they could still pass on the virus, and nothing was stopping travellers from interacting with unvaccinated people in New Zealand, he said.
Additionally, Basu said, if pre-departure testing requirements were the same as they are now — that someone should test negative for the virus within 72 hours before flying — there was a risk they could contract the virus within that time.
Nationwide, Australia also continued to record more than a thousand Covid-19 cases a day, he said.
“Vaccination plus a negative will be more reassuring, of course. The extent of infections will be very low and the risk of hospitalisations is quite low as well,” Basu said.
“But then the question is when. Even with all of those things, the time is not right now.”