Saturday, December 4

Travelers to New Zealand ‘a serious threat’ to another Delta outbreak

Scientists have rejected calls from New Zealanders abroad who want fewer border restrictions, warning that such action at this time would risk another outbreak in the Delta.

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Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

Nearly 16,000 people have signed a Grounded Kiwis petition calling for more managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities and alternative options, such as self-isolation, for fully vaccinated travelers.

Professor Tony Blakely

Tony Blakely, an epidemiologist at the University of Melbourne.
Photo: Billy Wong / University of Auckland

Tony Blakely, an epidemiologist at the University of Melbourne, who was born in New Zealand, acknowledged that it was “not very nice” to be excluded from one’s country, but it was an unfortunate reality.

“Yes, it is difficult. This is a one-in-100-year pandemic.”

Blakely said the current Covid-19 outbreak in Auckland was clear evidence of the danger of relaxing restrictions or opening the border too soon.

“The risk of bringing [too many] people right now, until you have more vaccine coverage, it’s real.

“It’s a serious threat. You don’t want it.”

University of Otago epidemiologist professor Michael Baker agreed, saying the more people return, the greater the risk of an outbreak and then a closure.

“We need high vaccine coverage before we change our configuration at the border,” Baker said.

“The price of failure is so high now … we know how incredibly disruptive, dangerous and costly a lockdown is.”

Baker said that, per capita, New Zealand already attracted more than twice as many travelers as Australia.

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Michael Baker.
Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

“In the short and medium term, it is difficult to see that there are more options to bring more people to the other side of the border.

“Unfortunately, [New Zealanders abroad] they’re going to have to be patient. “

Both professors advocated specially designed MIQ facilities as the optimal solution, but said border restrictions could be eased once New Zealand’s vaccination level was high enough.

“The good news is that New Zealand, along with other countries, is really increasing vaccination coverage,” said Blakely.

“The risk of bringing you back … will be much less in December, before Christmas.”

For months, the number of people trying to return home has far exceeded the number of MIQ places available: around 4,000 rooms per fortnight. The problem has only worsened since the Delta outbreak with a temporary freeze imposed on the newly allocated spaces.

Travelers can request an emergency space, but Grounded Kiwis spokeswoman Alexandra Birt said the threshold was too high.

Birt said it was useless telling New Zealanders “in really desperate situations” to be patient.

“Many of these people are jobless, they have no livelihood, they are trapped abroad. There is no way for them to be patient and wait. They need to go back.”

He said the group did not want to put New Zealand’s security at risk and did not believe that would happen with a “risk-based approach.”

“This is not about abolishing MIQ or anything crazy like that,” Birt said.

“This is a risk-based approach, taking into account factors such as where someone returns from, if they are fully vaccinated, if they have already had Covid.”

Birt said he understood the need for New Zealand to increase its vaccination rates, but noted that implementation had been very slow.

The government has been exploring the possibility of opening new MIQ facilities, especially in Rotorua, but has shown little interest in doing so at scale, citing workforce limitations and community rejection.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last month unveiled plans to facilitate the opening of the border next year once vaccination rates are high enough, including self-isolation for some low-risk travelers.

Ardern told reporters yesterday that the schedule had not been derailed.

“If anything, of course, we are seeing our vaccination program really accelerate, and the faster we can get past it, the more flexibility it offers.”

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