‘Light at the end of the tunnel’: New Zealand welcomes border reopening plans

New Zealand’s much-awaited, albeit cautious, roadmap for reopening its borders has given businesses and families a taste of hope for the future, though health experts warn that it is dependent on improving the country’s vaccination strategy to reach vulnerable communities.

The prime minister Jacinda Ardern laid out the reopening plans at a forum in Wellington on Thursday, 17 months after borders closed in March 2020.

Ardern indicated that, all going well, vaccinated travellers from low-risk countries will be allowed to skip quarantine and enter the country early next year. Travellers from medium-risk countries would undertake some form of self-isolation or a shorter stay in a quarantine hotel, while MIQ would still be required for those coming from high-risk countries, or those who are unvaccinated.

The proposals are contingent on an accelerated vaccine rollout in the next few months as the country seeks to avoid the lockdowns that are currently taking place in Australia.

Business leader and former chief executive of Air New Zealand Rob Fyfe said he felt encouraged that the strategy was “a clear signal of intent to open up”.

“I was hoping that it would happen pre-Christmas, but with Delta and what’s happened across the Tasman, if we opened too early and had to go into another lockdown, that would be a disaster from a business perspective,” he said.

To prepare for a phased reopening, Fyfe said businesses need to be doing everything they can to support people to get vaccinated, including allowing people time off to get vaccinated or if they are sick, educating employees on its importance and presenting Covid-19 tracer QR codes.

“There is so much we can be doing within business to encourage and support the pursuit of our freedoms to go back to living our lives as close to what we were prior to the Covid pandemic,” Fyfe said.

“It appears as though there is light at the end of the tunnel, but we don’t know how much longer we have to go,” Dr Julia Albrecht, a tourism expert at the University of Otago said. It would “be interesting to see whether our largely Covid-free status makes us more appealing,” she added.

But she also warned that there was still a lot of uncertainty. “We need to wait and see how arduous the border processes will be, and also what costs may be associated with them.”

Pasifika and Māori health experts warn the reopening plan hinges on reaching vulnerable communities, and that is going to require better techniques.

One Pasifika health leader, Dr Api Talemaitoga, said equity must continually drive the vaccination approach, starting with vaccine education.

“Vaccine hesitancy is thrown around a lot – but [the vaccine] is a new thing, it’s going to affect people. I think educating our communities is really important so they appreciate this virus and how harmful it can be,” he said.

It is crucial that the vaccination programme is community led, he added.

“We have the infrastructures there – schools, churches, general practices and Pacific health providers – who are not fly-by-nighters – they have been around for 20-30 years and they are trusted by our communities.”

Using a setting that attracts Pasifika people would be a better approach to boosting uptake, he said, and pointed to a Pacific vaccination festival day, which saw 830 people receive their first dose, as a good example.

“In Porirua there was music, Pacific kai and yes, you got a vaccine – there is a lot we can do and we need to be smarter.”

Māori immunologist Dr Maia Brewerton said that in te ao Māori (the Maori world), family and community were prioritised.

“We need to focus on those who aren’t accessing the vaccine … to reach those people.”

That approach should involve talking to those communities to find out what the barriers are, she said.

From October, vaccinated workers will be able to participate in a pilot where they can travel overseas and self-isolate at home, rather than going through the current mandatory two weeks of government-managed isolation (MIQ).

Epidemiologist, Sir David Skegg, who led a reopening advisory group, said he feels very encouraged that the government has heeded the experts advice to take a cautious approach to reopening.

But he said that self-isolation will look a lot different to how New Zealand has done self-isolation in the past due to the highly-infectious nature of the Delta variant.

“People sort of say ‘oh well so long as someone’s vaccinated, isolate at home’, and they sort of forget the vaccination is not 100% effective, and the sort of isolation we had before just won’t cut the mustard,” he said.

“For this pilot, it will just be people who can isolate alone. I mean, there’s two issues – one is making sure people really do stay at home … but also it’s going to be quite challenging I think for people to isolate in a family home.”

As of Wednesday, about 34% of New Zealand’s population aged 16 and over have had a first dose, and 20% are fully vaccinated.

Ardern said that opening now could have devastating consequences for the country.

She did not give a figure for what level of vaccination was required for the reopening, but said the country would need good coverage nationwide, including geographic spread and strong vaccination rates among high-risk and vulnerable groups.

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