The Government has announced a three-step plan for reopening the border to vaccinated tourists and visa holders, political editor Jo Moir reports
Next month vaccinated Australian tourists will be able to travel to New Zealand without requiring isolation – bringing forward the reopening plan by three months from July.
On Wednesday the Prime Minister announced the border dates, which Newsroom reported on Tuesday night would move from a two to a three-stage phased opening.
The plan until recently was for fully vaccinated travellers from Australia and all other visa waiver countries to be able to enter by July, followed by all other visa categories from October.
But the arrival of the Omicron variant and its spread in the community has prompted the Government to bring those dates forward.
The first phase for Australian travellers only begins on April 13, which will give the Government time to test the waters as the country comes out of its Omicron peak, before opening up to visa waiver countries on May 2.
The third tranche is travellers from remaining countries where visas are required for entry, but no date has yet been set for that category.
Currently the plan is to open to those countries in October but Cabinet is waiting on advice and will make announcements in due course.
While the announcement moves the dates forward by months, at the same time it merely realigns it with a previous plan to open the border to foreign nationals on April 30, which was announced by Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins in November last year.
That was before Omicron arrived and the reopening plans were abandoned and reset to allow for the pending outbreak.
The reopening with Australia next month coincides with school holidays for many states – Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia, and South Australia schools are all on holiday from Easter in mid-April through until either April 26 or May 2.
New Zealand schools are also on holiday until May 2, which will give airlines confidence they can gear up for increased travel both ways across the ditch.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been indicating for weeks that the timeline for opening the borders would be brought forward to better align with the loosened restrictions resulting from Omicron sweeping through the country.
Isolation requirements have gone completely for everyone except household contacts and positive cases, and Ardern is on record saying other restrictions would ease further when the country was through the peak.
That peak is still expected to start flattening out by the end of March – Auckland is already starting to see numbers drop, while the rest of the country’s peak is slightly behind.
By opening the border to Australia first it will give ministers and officials a chance to see what impact, if any, it has on cases and hospitalisations before going one step further to visa waiver countries.
Ardern will also make announcements next week around vaccine mandates.
Ardern has already outlined that mandates and the red traffic light setting won’t be necessary once Omicron has peaked, cases are coming down the other side and hospitalisations have normalised.
Whatever changes are made to the traffic light settings and mandates would have to take into account the opening up to tourists and visa holders as well.