There’s a lot more riding on the latest border reopening announcement than previous ones. The promise has come from the Prime Minister herself, but even that isn’t enough to convince everyone it will stick, writes political editor Jo Moir.

Comment: For two years Fortress New Zealand has kept the country protected from the devastating scenes that have played out in other countries.

While Kiwis living abroad have seen health systems overrun and horrific hospitalisation and death tolls, New Zealanders in comparison have enjoyed two summers of freedom and the trauma and heartache of losing a loved one to Covid has been limited to very few.

That’s the measure of success the Government has used to defend the borders being shut to so many for so long.

It’s a strong record envied by many across the globe.

But simply being grateful for that success has started to wane over time.

The heartache of not seeing family and friends has become the new trauma for Kiwis both here and abroad.

Add in the compelling story of pregnant Afghanistan-based Kiwi journalist Charlotte Bellis and suddenly even those who weren’t convinced the borders were causing injustice started to see it from both sides.

It was the catalyst that pushed Cabinet from a health response to a political one.

The stories of separation – Kiwis missing funerals, weddings, and pregnancies – or the desperation to get access to better healthcare or a safer political environment have added up over time.

The managed isolation and quarantine system that protected New Zealand before vaccines arrived has slowly but surely turned into death by a thousand cuts for the Government as more and more desperate stories surfaced.

Bellis’ case isn’t unique – she’s by no means the only Kiwi abroad who has found herself unable to come home in difficult personal circumstances.

The heartache of not seeing family and friends has become the new trauma for Kiwis both here and abroad.

But her international profile (coupled with the Taliban offering a helping hand) gave her the platform to truly test the fairness of the border closure.

Cabinet was always going to consider the reopening this month, but the Bellis case meant the timeframe got moved forward, and any wriggle room ministers might have had to push the reopening out into March or April completely evaporated.

Bellis shone a light on the fact there are plenty of other women just like her wanting to get home to have their children, and while Ardern has a reasonable amount of political capital stored away, even she couldn’t survive that narrative much longer.

So, it came as no great shock to anyone when deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson announced following Cabinet’s meeting on Tuesday that a decision on borders would be announced on Thursday, and Bellis had been offered a spot in MIQ.

It also came as no surprise that it was Ardern who fronted this announcement, stage-managed out of Auckland and deliberately hosted by Business NZ.

It was a nod to the business community that this decision was as much about them as it was reconnecting family and friends.

Delivering the speech in Auckland – the frontline of the border response and the heart of the business community – gave the announcement some separation from Parliament and any criticism that bureaucrats in Wellington don’t know what’s happening in the real world.

It was a highly-orchestrated political decision that has much more riding on it than the Covid response minister’s original announcement in November from the Beehive theatrette.

Ardern didn’t even turn up for that one, nor did she turn up for the December press conference when Chris Hipkins put the brakes on and pushed the dates out to the end of February.

To backtrack before February 27 or March 13, when Kiwis from further abroad can return home to self-isolate, wouldn’t just be brand damaging, it would be political suicide.

In November Hipkins announced the original January 17 reopening to Australia at his regular 1pm Wednesday press conference with the Director-General of Health.

There was no pomp or ceremony there – not even a special day set aside.

After Thursday’s announcement there are many Facebook groups with overseas family and friends chocker full of comments like, “I’ll believe it when it happens’’ and “let’s see if it actually happens this time’’.

The trust has been broken for many and it’s Ardern who has now staked her reputation and character on making sure those borders open.

To backtrack before February 27 or March 13, when Kiwis from further abroad can return home to self-isolate, wouldn’t just be brand damaging, it would be political suicide.

It is Hipkins and Robertson who have been put on the line previously, but it is Ardern’s trust factor that is worth more.

By the end of February, 92 percent of eligible New Zealanders will have had the opportunity to get boosted and many more school children will also be vaccinated.

Omicron will have spread much further in the community than it has to date, and many more people will be self-isolating at home.

Just when an outbreak will really hit, or peak, has been and will continue to be difficult to model.

If the Government was just making decisions based on the best health advice, as it did for the most part in 2020, the border would stay shut for some months yet.

That’s no longer an option on the Cabinet table when the business community is at its wit’s end, and even the international media – an ally of Ardern’s – has turned on her with headlines of the Taliban showing more kindness than her Government.

Fortress New Zealand has been kind to Kiwis living within its walls, but it’s about to come to an end.

Plenty who have enjoyed and needed the safety net it has provided will be devastated and anxious about what that means.

Booster, booster, booster is now the new vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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