The Government is taking its time letting Kiwis return home from Australia. Its rationale for not opening the trans-Tasman bubble ahead of Christmas is weak, and in the PM’s case deliberately evasive, writes political editor Jo Moir.

From January 17, fully vaccinated New Zealanders who have been stuck in Australia throughout Covid will finally be able to head back to Kiwi shores and self-isolate for seven days, bypassing MIQ altogether.

Their partners and dependants will be allowed to join them, regardless of their citizenship, and self-isolation will be of a very liberal persuasion.

Those living in the same house as the overseas arrivals will be able to come and go and effectively live a normal life while their guests stay put for seven days and wait for their final negative test.

It’s a compromise that provides for some risk mitigation by reducing the number of potential contacts if anyone in the house does test positive, while not requiring self-isolation for those who normally reside there.

There is no reason why this change can’t be implemented ahead of Christmas.

Even epidemiologists have concluded the risk from vaccinated travellers is low, and certainly much lower than Auckland residents.

The Government has failed to explain what extra risk there will be allowing vaccinated New Zealanders to come home and self-isolate from Sunday December 19 – ahead of Christmas – versus Sunday January 16.

Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins revealed in Parliament on Tuesday that of the 2544 travellers who had arrived in MIQ from Australia since August 23, there were zero positive cases amongst the fully vaccinated.

The Government has failed to explain what extra risk there will be allowing vaccinated New Zealanders to come home and self-isolate from Sunday December 19 – ahead of Christmas – versus Sunday January 16.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern obfuscated when asked what the risk was, instead pointing to the significant risk international returnees from around the world would pose if there were no border protocols in place at all.

Newsroom repeatedly asked what extra risk there would be ahead of Christmas for vaccinated Kiwis in Australia returning to New Zealand to undergo self-isolation.

Her response that tens of thousands of people returning from around the world each week could potentially lead to 60 positive Covid cases has no relevance whatsoever to the impact of vaccinated Kiwis leaving Australia and self-isolating on arrival.

Ardern told Newsroom she expected a larger number of people would travel over from Australia, even with the seven-day self-isolation restriction, and that meant there could be positive cases.

Asked how a few weeks would significantly alter that risk, she said, “Keep in mind, the case that caused the outbreak in New Zealand wasn’t counted as a Covid case in Australia, but it was certainly counted here’’.

That’s a reference to the Sydney man who arrived at the Crowne Plaza MIQ facility in August and is considered the source of the original Delta outbreak in Auckland.

It’s an odd example for Ardern to bring up considering the Government chose not to require pre-departure testing for those returning from Delta-ridden New South Wales.

And if it had been a requirement, the man may have been stopped from boarding the plane in the first place, given he tested positive for Covid on day one.

The difference this time around is that only fully vaccinated New Zealanders are allowed across the border and a negative pre-departure test is mandatory.

It’s not uncommon for Ardern to deliberately evade simple questions and give answers that bear no resemblance to the actual question.

In this case all it does is emphasise there is no increased risk if the changes were implemented ahead of Christmas, and rather than admitting that, Ardern is hoping word soup answers will be a distraction.

National’s Chris Bishop is right when he says the Government isn’t making decisions proportionate to the risk.

The next two steps in the phased reopening are Kiwis from all other countries being allowed to return home and self-isolate from February 13, and then from April 30 all fully vaccinated travellers from anywhere will be able to arrive in New Zealand.

As for how long the self-isolation requirement will be in place, Hipkins says it is under constant review and will only stay if it’s justified on public health grounds.

Where there is certainty, however, is the death of the trans-Tasman bubble.

The bubble was due to be reviewed again at the end of this month, but Hipkins has officially killed it.

He says it was a “construct that existed when there was no Covid-19 in New Zealand or Australia’’.

That is clearly no longer the case, but it hasn’t been the case for quite some time, and the continued reluctance to pop it before now has only kept hope alive when there hasn’t been any.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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