Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern yesterday appeared to set a new bar to be overcome before borders can be fully opened.
She told her weekly post-Cabinet press conference that whether or not the vaccine prevented transmission would be a factor in any decision to fully open the border.
“What will be material is what the evidence and clinical trials will demonstrate around the level of transmission that you may or may not have among those who are vaccinated,” she said.
“So a vaccine, of course, presents the feeling, the effects or suffering the effects of the disease.
“It stops you becoming very unwell.
“But we’re still waiting for the data that demonstrates what it does for transmission between people.
“So those are the two factors that are important.
“When will countries be able to broadly immunise the population?
“But equally, would you have a situation where a vaccine means that you’re no longer a risk because they equally could affect all of us.”
Her comments came as pressure is mounting from the business community for some relaxation of the border restrictions.
Sixty one per cent of businesses surveyed by Business New Zealand reported yesterday that the border closure was having an adverse effect on their ability to retain workers.
About 70% of companies noted negative impacts on productivity, revenue, and their ability to operate if they lost further international workers; 57% said they have tried recruiting New Zealanders for roles but would need to supplement recruitment with an international workforce; and 62% reported significant impacts on revenue, lost business opportunities, reduced productivity, and impacts on staff wellbeing as a result of the border closure.
Ardern conceded that there was some tension with the business community over the managed isolation stays.
“For the most part, the feedback I’ve had is that the business community absolutely understands the rationale for our strategy around the border,” she said.
“The tension has simply been the proportion of places that are available for economic reasons versus the significant demand for New Zealanders to return home.”
However, there is work going on looking at reducing the amount of time people from some countries spend in managed isolation when they arrive in the country.
But Ardern sounded sceptical about the idea yesterday.
“What we have to factor in is that any change to the length of stay, for instance, would require a reconfiguration of our facilities,” she said.
“You wouldn’t want people with short stays being necessarily in the same facility as people that were high risk because by virtue, by its very nature shortened state indicates that you’ve got someone from a low-risk country.
“So we would need, therefore, to have those separate facilities set up.
“It’s something that we have discussed the possibility of, but have not made any final decisions around keeping in mind that actually our ultimate goal is still quarantine free travel.
“And that is something that we want to conclude some of the time frames around as soon as we can.”
But if quarantine free travel is the ultimate goal and if that requires that the vaccines prevent transmission, then it may be some time off since neither of the two vaccines purchased by New Zealand so far has been shown to prevent transmission.
In October, the Government signed an agreement to purchase 1.5 million Covid-19 vaccines – enough for 750,000 people – from Pfizer and BioNTech, subject to the vaccine successfully completing all clinical trials and passing regulatory approvals in New Zealand.
“As part of the agreement, vaccine delivery to New Zealand could be as early as the first quarter of 2021. Provided the vaccine is approved for use in New Zealand by Medsafe, it is possible that some doses will be available to us in the first part of 2021,” the Minister of Research, Science and Innovation, Megan Woods said.
At this stage, there is no evidence one way or the other to prove whether this vaccine will stop transmission, but trials and research are continuing.
Woods has also confirmed an in-principle agreement to purchase up to 5 million vaccines – enough for 5 million people – from Janssen Pharmaceutica, subject to the vaccine successfully completing clinical trials and passing regulatory approvals.
“The agreement with Janssen would see the first doses – up to 2 million – delivered from the third quarter of 2021. We have the option to purchase up to 3 million additional doses, which would be delivered throughout 2022,” said Woods.
“A key point of difference for the Janssen vaccine is that it’s likely to be a single-dose vaccine and is compatible with standard vaccine distribution channels, so it may potentially be more efficient to administer.”
Again, there is no evidence to show that this will stop transmission.
But complaints about the border closures are increasing and whether the country could afford to wait till the end of next year for any relaxation is surely a moot point.
There is also external pressure.
Speaking at the University of Auckland’s Institute of Policy Studies conference on trade at the weekend the First Secretary from the Tuvalu High Commission in Wellington, Simalua Enele, said her country hoped New Zealand would move forward with the border restrictions as “we have a lot of Tuvualans who want to come over and work in the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme in New Zealand.”
The workers are employed mainly in horticultural work such as picking fruit and harvesting crops.
Ardern said that the demand for workers in horticulture would increase around march when the Government did have 2000 places available for RSE workers.
But the complaints about the border closure can only be expected to increase.
In comparison with New Zealand, Singapore, which is getting only two or three community cases a week and a few more “imported’ cases requires visitors from New Zealand to have a swab test on arrival and to self isolate while waiting for the results. (usually 48 hours).
That suggests that the complaints about the border closure here may only increase.
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