The Government will take 10 factors into account when determining how risky each country is once the borders reopen, Marc Daalder reports

New details about how the Government could progressively reopen to the world have been revealed by a proactively-released July Cabinet paper.

The document lays out 10 factors health officials will use to determine where each country will fall in a “traffic light” system, with travel still severely curtailed from “very high risk” countries and quarantine-free travel from “low risk” jurisdictions.

It was prepared ahead of the Government’s reopening forum in August, at which Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern pledged to try to continue to eliminate Covid-19 even after a staged reopening of the borders in 2022. This ongoing elimination would rely on less intrusive measures like testing and contact tracing, rather than lockdowns. It would also be dependent on fewer Covid-19 cases entering the country, with border controls still preventing most unvaccinated people from travelling to New Zealand.


The Delta outbreak was discovered five days after the forum and has thrown those reopening plans into disarray. Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has said the Government will need to seek updated advice ahead of any reopening.

But the principles outlined in the July Cabinet document are likely to continue to guide future risk assessments for other countries.

As it stands, a narrow range of countries are classified as “very high risk” and travel from these locations is limited to New Zealand citizens and their families. A handful of countries are open for quarantine-free travel – since the Trans-Tasman bubble closed in July, this has been limited to the Cook Islands and Niue. Most countries are in the middle, with travel open for New Zealand citizens and residents and their families, as well as a handful of people with special exemptions, all of whom need to go through MIQ on arrival.

The original “very high risk” list was set up in April and included any countries where more than five percent of returnees from that country were testing positive in MIQ. At that time, it encompassed India, Pakistan, Brazil and Papua New Guinea. In August, Fiji and Indonesia were added to the list.

The Government’s new approach would be more qualitative, taking into account a range of factors rather than whether the country meets a strict test.

“Rather than setting fixed thresholds that must be met for any risk mitigation measures to be imposed, we can assess a broader picture of country or jurisdiction risk based on a number of public health considerations,” Hipkins wrote in the Cabinet paper.

Risk assessments would evaluate how many people arrive in New Zealand from the given country, and be based in the confidence of health officials in that country’s health system capacity, reported case data and pre-departure testing measures. How the country manages outbreaks, how much it is testing for the virus and how much of the population is vaccinated (as well as the type of vaccine) would also be taken into account.

For those countries with community transmission, officials would also consider the case fatality rate, the weekly number of cases per capita and how quickly case numbers are rising or falling.

The Ministry of Health would undertake broader weekly surveillance of all countries and those that raised red flags would be put through this intensified vetting process to determine if they needed to be moved into a higher risk level, the Cabinet paper said.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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