The Cabinet will decide in two weeks when Kiwis abroad can return home and self-isolate. With Omicron already spreading, the dates could come sooner than expected for some, writes political editor Jo Moir.
Analysis: A phased reopening of the border beginning with vaccinated Kiwis living in Australia was announced late last year, but quickly came to an end just before Christmas when it was postponed by more than a month.
The Government is now reviewing all three stages of the border reopening and is considering an end of February date for not only Kiwis living in Australia but also those further abroad.
In November, Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced self-isolation and a complete by-pass of managed isolation for vaccinated, negative-tested travellers, over several months.
The first was for Kiwis returning from Australia set to kick in on January 17, followed by New Zealanders from other countries on February 13, and then opening more widely to vaccinated foreign nationals on April 30.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Newsroom on Tuesday she would give certainty to those overseas after Cabinet met on February 8 to make final decisions on the new dates.
Ardern said decisions would continue to be based on being “cautious” and “not leading to an overwhelming of our health services’’.
In an interview with Newsroom last week Hipkins said modelling on how long it takes for Omicron to peak in a highly vaccinated country is informing all the decisions being made.
That includes deciding when the right time is to turn on the tap at the border in a way that smooths the impact over the summer months.
Ministers will consider how arrivals at the border will affect health services and supply chains, and balance that with a preference to get through the Omicron peak before the winter months hit.
Ardern told Newsroom the announcement on December 21 to review and reopen the border in a phased way at the end of February hasn’t changed.
But Newsroom understands phase two of the reopening plan (Kiwis in countries outside Australia) could be brought forward to the end of February, if the modelling suggests the arrivals won’t unnecessarily swamp the health system or supply chains.
On Thursday Hipkins told Newsroom, ‘’we are considering issues around – and there’s never a good time – but whether there is a time that’s better than others’’ for Omicron to spread in the community.
The end of February has been confirmed for the first, and possibly the second phases of reopening, and the initial April 30 date for opening to foreign nationals could also end up being moved forward.
On Tuesday Ardern told Newsroom March had been set down as the next date for more stages of the reopening.
That decision would come down to modelling and how many daily cases New Zealand is experiencing.
But Newsroom understands phase two of the reopening plan (Kiwis in countries outside Australia) could be brought forward to the end of February, if the modelling suggests the health system can cope with the extra arrivals.
The arrival of vaccinated foreign nationals will be broken into various groups, such as international students and tourists, and different dates will be set for each.
Once Omicron is widespread in the community the need for managed isolation becomes less, which is why the most recent MIQ ballot on January 20 was postponed.
The ballot was set to release rooms for March and April, but the Government’s upcoming announcements mean MIQ may not be needed for Kiwis in Australia, and possibly other countries as well, depending on when the various phases of reopening take place.
That would take the pressure off the MIQ system and leave it available for positive cases where self-isolation is difficult.
Meanwhile, the Government is concentrating on adding another layer of protection within our borders by getting as many people boosted as possible and 5- to 11-year-olds vaccinated.
Ardern told Newsroom those getting their booster shot increased significantly on Tuesday – 60 percent of those eligible have now got their booster, up from 56 percent on Thursday.
She said “days of action’’ are being considered to encourage booster shots and the Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield told Newsroom there would be “activities” announced, but a vaxathon-style event wasn’t planned.