The awkward couple; Chris Bishop and National Leader, Judith Collins, at yesterday's National's Covid Policy launch

National yesterday capitalised on the Tuesday night failure of 25,008 people to get Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) vouchers to get back to New Zealand before Christmas and unveiled its own border opening policy.

Although National’s plan had a lack of hard data and holes and inconsistencies in it, it did threaten to put the Government on the back foot.

Yesterday’s presentation at a Wellington Airport hotel presented its own ironies. National Leader Judith Collins was forced to share the stage with one of the plan’s main authors, Chris Bishop, the MP she fired as Shadow Leader of the House only four weeks ago.

Simply the plan would allow a limited opening of the border (to Queensland, West Australia, ACT, the Cook Islands and possibly Taiwan vaccinated travellers) once New Zealand reached 85 per cent of the population aged over 12 fully vaccinated.

Travellers from other destinations would be required to self-isolate for seven days, or if they were coming from a jurisdiction where Covid was out of control, they would need to go into an MIQ facility for 14 days, as would any unvaccinated travellers, including New Zealanders.

Answering questions from Judith Collins in Parliament yesterday afternoon, the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, defined the dichotomy facing the Government over opening the border versus internal restrictions.

“We have also prioritised New Zealanders here not facing undue and unnecessary additional restrictions to manage what would inevitably be a rate of seeded cases at the border,” she said.

She cited Canada, which had all but removed border restrictions and was now having to impose tighter internal restrictions as a result of a surge of new cases.

“There is no free lunch,” she said.

“You do have to make trade-offs.

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“We’ve decided to prioritise domestically trying to get the settings as low as possible for New Zealanders, and, in time, we will see changes at our border as well.”

National’s plan rests on achieving an 85 per cent vaccination rate across the country.

Only one group, Pakeha in Auckland city, has reached that level of at least one jab.

Pakeha in the Taranaki are on only 54 per cent and Maori rates are generally low, the lowest being 47 per cent in the Taranaki and Bay of Plenty.

Urban Maori rates are much higher; 67 per cent in both Auckland and Wellington.

NZ Covid first vaccination rates by ethnicity and District Health Board week ending 26/09/2021

78% of the overall population over 12 have received their first dose
MaoriPasifikaPakeha
Northland486174
Auckland677090
Counties Manukau556883
Waitemata637179
Waikato526966
Bay of Plenty478761
Tairawhiti537465
Lakes486462
Taranaki476554
Whanganui516258
Hawke's Bay528866
MidCentral547066
Wairarapa536956
Hutt Valley596972
Capital and Coast677182
Nelson Marlborough5715564
West Coast566750
Canterbury566764
South Canterbury567858
Southern628074

At the core of National’s policy is the proposal that 85 per cent of the population be vaccinated.

Covid Response spokesperson Chris Bishop admitted they had not done any modelling of their own on the impact of opening up at 85 per cent. And he would not release the names of any of the consultants they had used.

“We’re not naming the groups that we’ve engaged with publicly because they are in prominent positions who don’t wish to be known publicly,” he said.

But Professor Shaun Hendy’s modelling published last week by the Government showed that at 85 per cent coverage, with a vaccine (such as Pfizer) rated as “highly effective”,; annual deaths would be 191.

Bishop admitted that with National’s strategy, there would be Covid cases.

“We would anticipate a low number of covered cases,” he said.

“This is not a free-for-all; this is a strategy of vigorous suppression.

“At the moment, the Government at least says we have an elimination strategy where they have a zero-tolerance for any new Covid cases.

“We are explicitly saying there will be Covid cases.

“And the reality is the Government knows that.

“The Prime Minister is trying to run this line that you can reopen to the world and reconnect with his stated government policy and have no Covid.

“We are being intellectually honest and being upfront with New Zealanders; that is not possible.

Experts are pretty much united that with Delta; if you open the borders even slightly, Delta makes its way into the community.

“And it happened even with the elimination broader strategy, with very, very tight borders here.

“Now it will come back. We’re being upfront and honest and saying, Delta’s here, it’s going to come back.”

National would establish a dedicated agency to manage Covid, Te Korowai Kokiri to be based in Manukau and would also set up purpose-built MIQ at Auckland Airport.

National argues that with a stepping up of the vaccine programme, an upgrade of contact tracing,  rapid testing and the advent of a digital app for vaccine authentication, it could manage any outbreak of Covid.

Bishop said National wanted to get away lockdowns using all the tools it was proposing, but he conceded that localised lockdowns might still be needed.

Covid response Minister Chris Hipkins was critical of National for not producing any modelling to back up its claims that it could open the borders and minimise the number of Covid cases.

“It’s clear that the National Party want to throw open the borders, have hundreds of thousands of people coming in. Therefore, one can conclude that the biggest promise they’re making at the moment is that they’re willing for Kiwis to get Covid for Christmas,” he said.

“The reality here is that they haven’t provided any modelling for the number of Covid-19 cases that they would be willing to tolerate or what they would do in certain scenarios because it would almost certainly result in significant numbers of cases in the community.

“They’ve given no indication of what they would do around managing that.”

National’s plan bore the heavy imprint of its Covid spokesperson, Chris Bishop, who seems to be something of a policy wonk. When he was Transport spokesperson last year in the run-up to the election, he was one of the few National MPs with a developed policy platform.

In contrast, Leader Judith Collins had plainly been persuaded to back-track from a key policy position she held as recently as a week ago.

On Newshub’s  AM Show on September 22, she was asked whether employers could tell workers that if they hadn’t been vaccinated, they could not work.

She said no.

“There’s no other illness, virus or anything else that people have to have an immunisation to stay in the job,” she said. However, she conceded that mandatory vaccination might be appropriate for “frontline health workers, frontline people, border facing workers”.

“But I think it is also very important that we don’t end up with two classes of people in this country.”

She has, however, now moderated her position, perhaps after being reminded that National is supposed to support the rights of employers to manage their businesses.

So yesterday she said: “We believe that every business, every organisation has the right to decide who comes onto the premises. So under the health and safety legislation, every workplace or even premises have the right to decide. And so they will need to make that assessment.”

National had included changes to immigration settings as part of its Covid plan, but a big chunk of that has now been gazumped by Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi, who this morning has announced a new Covid-related residency Visa which he says will offer a one-off, simplified pathway to residence for around 165,000 migrants currently in New Zealand.

 Visa will be available to most work-related visa holders, including Essential Skills, Work to Residence, and Post Study Work visas and their immediate family members.

 “Immigration New Zealand estimate the eligible visa holders will include over 5,000 health and aged care workers, around 9,000 primary industry workers, and more than 800 teachers. There are also around 15,000 construction and 12,000 manufacturing workers on relevant visa types, some of whom will be eligible for the one-off pathway,” said Faafoi.

“These people have all played an important role in keeping our country moving over the last 18 months,” Kris Faafoi said.

To be eligible, the principal applicant must have been in New Zealand on 29 September 2021 and must hold or have applied for (and subsequently be granted) one of the eligible work visas. They must also meet one of the following criteria:

  • lived in New Zealand for three or more years, or
    • earn above the median wage ($27 per hour or more), or
    • work in a role on the Long Term Skill Shortage List, or
    • hold occupational registration and work in the health or education sector, or
    • work in personal care or other critical health worker roles, or
    • work in a specified role in the primary industries.

The visa will also be available for those who enter New Zealand as critical workers, and their families, for roles six months or longer until 31 July 2022.

Visa holders can also include their partners and dependents in their applications.

The application process for the 2021 Resident Visa is simplified to deal with applications as quickly as possible. Applicants will still need to meet health requirements and pass police and security checks, as is required under the current residence application process.

The one-off arrangement for the new 2021 Resident Visa would see the majority of applications granted within a year of the category opening.

National can claim some credit for this; their Immigration spokesperson, Erica Stanford, has been a tireless advocate for immigration reform during Covid.

Now the question will be whether the Government will also pick up some of their Covid proposals.