The Prime Minister caught many unaware with her warning that plans to reopen the border next year could change. Health advice will be reviewed in January but with increasingly high vaccination rates it will ultimately be a political decision, writes political editor Jo Moir.

Four Cabinet ministers are making the bulk of the decisions when it comes to Covid and in the first week of January they will ultimately decide whether to backtrack on plans to reopen the border to Australia.

The current plan is for double vaccinated New Zealanders coming in from Australia to be able to do seven days self-isolation from January 17, providing they have a negative pre-departure test.

The Prime Minister, her deputy Grant Robertson, Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins and Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall are running a Covid duty roster between Christmas and mid-January to keep an eye on any developments and respond publicly, if necessary.

Jacinda Ardern and Hipkins will be on duty the first two weeks, then Robertson and Verrall will take over.

On January 7, together with their Cabinet colleagues, they will review the latest information on the new variant, Omicron.

Ardern says she’ll be looking for how transmissible the virus is at that point and how well the vaccine is working against it.

“If we see the vaccine struggling and more people getting sick that poses challenges not just for New Zealand, but the world,’’ she said on Tuesday.

There’s also a possibility Omicron is already in New Zealand by then, given people are arriving at the border every fortnight, which is by no means failsafe.

If Government ministers plan to wait for a perfect scenario where a highly transmissible variant isn’t a threat, they’ll be waiting forever.

In the same way it was inevitable Delta would arrive here, Omicron will too.

In August Hipkins warned the nation should prepare for future lockdowns when Delta arrived because of its high transmissibility.

By the following week the country was in alert level 4 and in the months since the country has failed to eliminate the variant.

Now the Government is signalling its intentions again, this time a warning that the borders won’t be loosened as promised in the new year if there’s reason to believe it could let Omicron in or increase its spread.

Ardern’s warning at her weekly post-Cabinet press conference on Monday came unannounced and Newsroom understands it took Air New Zealand and the country’s international airport operators by surprise.

Ministers have given the airline a heads-up on Covid decisions in the past, and Newsroom understands Monday’s border signal from Ardern was something the airline would have expected to be told about.

Air New Zealand has been planning for a ramp-up in demand in January as vaccinated family and friends across the Tasman look to reconnect without any need to enter managed isolation on their return.

Pilots and airline staff are being assigned to flights that may or may not go ahead depending on what ministers decide in January.

Robertson told Newsroom on Tuesday that “real consideration’’ is given to all the signals that are sent, and that he didn’t believe individual comments from a minister had a direct impact on things like flight demand.

But Newsroom understands that isn’t the case and forecast flights are now being reviewed as airports and airlines scramble after Monday’s surprise comments from Ardern.

Having an impact on demand could end up being a good thing for the Government.

“When we opened the trans-Tasman bubble, we did so on the basis of flyer beware, and I think any changes in the new year are still on that basis.”
– Chris Hipkins

If Kiwis who have travelled to Australia wind up stuck there and the Government is forced to put on red-zone flights to bring them home and into MIQ, the fewer there in the first place the better.

It’s not clear what any changes to self-isolation restrictions would look like given both Ardern and Hipkins are refusing to detail what the contingency plans are.

Hipkins said he wouldn’t set out how things might look for those stuck overseas if Omicron is an issue because he doesn’t want people to plan their travel on that basis.

But he also says his advice to people thinking about travelling under the new self-isolation criteria is to “think carefully before you decide to travel’’.

“When we opened the trans-Tasman bubble, we did so on the basis of flyer beware, and I think any changes in the new year are still on that basis.

“It’s still a very uncertain world while we deal with a global pandemic,’’ he told Newsroom.

Some Kiwis have already started to make new year plans based on self-isolation requirements – an instruction the Government gave them just last month.

Now Hipkins’ advice is to get an MIQ spot, and definitely not release one already won in a ballot “until there’s absolute certainty there’’.

Yet just two weeks ago Robertson told Newsroom he saw no reason for Kiwis planning to ditch MIQ spots and rely on self-isolation to make any changes.

Adding to all this is Hipkins response to National’s Chris Bishop in Parliament on Tuesday that there hasn’t been a single positive Covid case in fully vaccinated travellers from Australia since August 23.

Vaccination rates are expected to be near the mid-90s by the middle of January and the Government is already taking the plunge and lifting the hard border around Auckland on Wednesday.

Auckland is still recording between roughly 50 and 80 Covid cases a day but a political decision has been made to reconnect those who have been doing it tough in the country’s biggest city with family and friends.

The same political decision will have to be made at some point when it comes to Australia, where many Kiwis have family who they haven’t seen for more than two years, and compliance around self-isolation would be high.

If Government ministers plan to wait for a perfect scenario where a highly transmissible variant isn’t a threat, they’ll be waiting forever.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

Leave a comment