There is light at the end of the tunnel for vaccinated Kiwis stuck abroad, with Cabinet today signing off on shorter stays in managed isolation. And in the near future MIQ will be bypassed altogether, writes political editor Jo Moir.

Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins’ message to vaccinated Kiwis stuck overseas waiting on a MIQ slot to come home is, “you haven’t got much longer to wait’’.

That’s because coming home is about to get a lot simpler as the Government moves away from putting double-vaccinated New Zealanders through 14 days of managed isolation on arrival.

In an exclusive interview with Newsroom, Hipkins revealed there will be several steps between now and early next year that will completely change the way vaccinated New Zealanders return to home soil.

While not anyone and everyone will immediately be able to jump on a plane and head to New Zealand, Hipkins says it’s likely more Kiwis will get the chance to come home in the very near future.

That’s because as the number of days spent in MIQ decreases, some additional space will open up.

Before the end of summer, Hipkins expects those returning to New Zealand who are fully vaccinated and test negative for Covid will completely bypass MIQ and only be required to isolate for a short period at home.

On Tuesday, Cabinet will confirm plans to reset the way managed isolation and quarantine is used and the risk assessment applied to it for both community cases and those coming home from overseas.

“It’s likely to be in the next few months that there will be much greater freedom to move in and out of the country with isolating at home being the default.”
– Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins

It comes as positive Covid cases in Auckland deemed low-risk are allowed to self-isolate for 14 days at home. More than 100 individuals have done so to date during this outbreak.

The first step for returning Kiwis will be a combination of MIQ and home isolation, which Hipkins expects to be introduced in the next couple of weeks.

In the not-too-distant future, the risk of vaccinated Kiwis entering the border will become less and less at which point self-isolation will be completely done at home with no MIQ requirements at all.

“It’s likely to be in the next few months that there will be much greater freedom to move in and out of the country with isolating at home being the default,’’ Hipkins told Newsroom.

“We may put the restrictions on the nature of the travel initially. It might be for people normally resident in New Zealand, or New Zealand citizens or permanent residents.’’

In other words, tourism won’t be on the list of approved overseas travel immediately because of the challenges that creates, Hipkins said.

“People coming home to reconnect with family are more likely to have home isolation options, whereas visitors are going to need to be isolating in hotels and that brings a new layer of complexity.’’

Hipkins says the risk assessment at the international border will change in a phased way over the next six weeks as Covid continues to spread not only in Auckland, but throughout the rest of the country.

“It’s going to reach the stage where cases in the community will present a bigger risk to us than cases coming across the border, who are effectively in the position of ending up being close contacts rather than actual cases.’’

Newsroom put to Hipkins that with so few positive cases arriving at the border, the risk from vaccinated Kiwis returning home was already less than from those living here.

Hipkins said that is the case in Auckland, but while Covid is mostly contained in the country’s biggest city, Kiwis returning home still pose a risk to other regions that are currently Covid-free.

And until vaccination rates get up, that will continue to be the case, he said.

“You’ll see changes announced [this] week to be implemented relatively soon that recognises that change in reality.’’

The removal of MIQ restrictions will be a several-step process.

“But within the next few months I think the default position at the border is going to be isolating at home. They will come into the country, go straight home and isolate for a period, and assuming they don’t have Covid then that’s it.”

All of this will require proof of being double jabbed with an approved vaccine, and travel from countries that aren’t deemed high-risk.

This week Hipkins will outline the first step of the process – a reduced period in MIQ combined with a period of self-isolation.

“From there you’ll see progressive reductions in MIQ requirements for people coming across the border – shortened periods initially with home isolation.

“Some will go to MIQ, but some will go straight home, and progressively over time the restrictions will lift.

“But it might not be a long time – those shifts might happen quickly because when we get to a point where a person in the community is a greater risk, the justification for isolation for incoming vaccinated arrivals becomes smaller,’’ Hipkins told Newsroom.

The equation officials are working on is the mix of high-risk local cases in MIQ versus international arrivals.

That means MIQ will still exist for some time, Hipkins said.

The timeline for MIQ restrictions lifting is changing rapidly as the landscape changes in Auckland.

Hipkins said late February was the “outer edge of the timetable’’ for returning Kiwis to completely bypass MIQ, and it may happen sooner “given Covid-19 is now here’’.

“The big question at the moment is how long we can contain it in Auckland.

“Once it’s no longer contained and we’ve moved to the new world of red, amber or green traffic lights, at that point the risk assessment is quite different and the international border can allow much greater movement with self-isolation as the default,’’ he said.

It’s the regional borders that are the complicating factor for how to deal with returning Kiwis.

“If the whole country was in the same boat, it would be much clearer-cut.’’

But for now, some regions are Covid-free and that means international arrivals pose a higher risk there than they do in Auckland.

“I don’t think there were any defences that would have dealt with the risk of Delta.”
– Chris Hipkins

The bespoke home isolation for community cases in Auckland is proving useful too.

“As Covid spreads across Auckland into more diverse parts of the community, the feedback I’ve had is that compliance (at home) is good,’’ he said.

Where community cases are still having to go straight to managed quarantine is “at the more difficult ends of the community’’, where compliance isn’t as good.

While the new arrangements appear to be working, Hipkins said nothing about this outbreak sits comfortably with him.

“There’s no such thing as comfort at this point – none of it is comfortable.

“It’s all pretty high-wire stuff at this stage because we’re entering into this new phase, and I think we all would have preferred we got the country to 90 percent vaccination before we entered this phase, but we didn’t get there in the end.’’

Newsroom put to Hipkins that New Zealand had more time to prepare for Delta than other countries.

Hipkins disagreed, saying “our defences were pretty well fortified’’.

“I don’t think there were any defences that would have dealt with the risk of Delta.

“When you’ve got a virus that can spread from person to person to person in a 24-hour period, I’m not sure there is any system that is going to be robust enough in that sort of environment,’’ he said.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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