Covid 19 response Minister Chris Hipkins with the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the Beehive.

As the Government plans a major media event next week to unveil its getting-back-to-normal Covid strategy, it is also redefining how to handle an outbreak.

The Prime Minister has confirmed that the Strategic COVID-19 Public Health Advisory Group will present its report on Thursday week.

Its key role is to advise the Government on vaccine rollouts and any changes to the approach to public health protections and border settings.

But it was set up in April before the Delta variant had begun its current sweep through eastern Australia.

It was clear from statements in Parliament yesterday that Delta has changed things.

Covid-19 response Minister, Chris Hipkins, told the House that the Delta variant has materially changed the risk profile of Covid.

A look across the Tasman confirms that.

On Monday, Australia had 222 new cases, 207 of them in New South Wales.

That is the Delta variant in full flight.

The Delta variant is moretransmissible than the viruses that cause MERS, SARS, Ebola, the common cold, the seasonal flu and smallpox, and it is as contagious as chickenpox, according to an internal US Centres for Disease Control document, a copy of which was obtained last Friday by The New York Times.


But the document also said that virtually all hospitalisations and deaths had been among the unvaccinated.

It is those two facts that appear to be informing current Government policy on Covid.

Hipkins’ first priority is obviously to keep Delta Covid from crossing the border.

“In the view of our health officials, there is now a greater risk from the Delta variant than there was when we opened quarantine-free travel with Australia,” he said.

“It’s the New Zealand Government’s duty to keep New Zealanders safe from Covid.

“We continue to believe that the strongest health response is also the strongest economic response.”

Hipkins did not give any indication that he is willing to relax the eight-week suspension of the travel bubble with Australia, specifically, New South Wales.

“We’ve said, with this suspension, that we’ve set it for eight weeks,” he said.

“We’ll keep it under review during that time, but I think, given what we’re seeing in Australia—particularly in New South Wales—and given what we know from our own experience about how long it takes to turn that curve back down again, I think that eight-week initial benchmark was quite a realistic one.”

However, he did concede that it might be possible to open up to some states.

“State by state arrangements can work quite well,” he said.

“One of the concerns that we have around the situation within New South Wales at the moment is it is clear that that is leaking into other states.

“So one of the things that we would want to see is that, if we were going to reopen on a state by state basis, there was a good, clear demarcation between states, where we weren’t concerned that people could travel into those states and thereby travel to New Zealand from those states.

“So that is something that we would look for.”

The key to any opening up of the borders with the world — even Australia — will be the rate of vaccinations in New Zealand.

On Monday, 20,000 people got their first vaccination. There are approximately two million people over 14 left to get their first vaccination. At Monday’s rate, they could all be done by the end of November with their second vaccination three weeks later.

This is the issue that will be addressed at the media event next week.

In some ways, it will be New Zealand’s equivalent to the four-phase pathway out of Covid unveiled by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison last Friday.

Under his plan, once the country reaches an 80% average vaccination rate, the Federal Government will abolish caps on returning vaccinated Australians, increase capped entry of student, economic and humanitarian visa holders, and lift all restrictions on outbound travel for vaccinated Australians.

There will be a gradual reopening of inward and outbound international travel with safe countries – those that have the same sort of vaccination levels that Australia has – and proportionate quarantine and reduced requirements for fully vaccinated in-bound travellers.

But the announcement here will lean heavily on the scientific and economic advice of the Public health Advisory Group which is chaired by epidemiologist and former Vice-Chancellor of Otago University, Sir David Skegg.

Beehive officials have been careful to emphasise the role science will play in any decisions on opening up the border.

And its advisory group is a heavyweight group of medical experts and scientists with a clear lean towards Skegg’s University, Otago.

It includes Philip Hill, Professor of International Health at Otago University; Associate professor Nikki Turner, director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre at the University of Auckland; Dr Maia Brewerton, a clinical immunologist at the Malaghan Institute; Professor David Murdoch, Dean of the University of Otago, Christchurch and an infectious respiratory diseases expert; Dr Ella Iosua, a biostatistician and senior research fellow at the University of Otago.

The group also has University of Auckland statistics modeller Sean Hendy and economist and modeller Rodney Jones as special advisors.

The group does not report to the Ministry of health but to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

A clue to the direction they might take came yesterday in Australia when Morrison unveiled research by the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity at the University of Melbourne, which showed that immunising younger people who tended to transmit the virus more – rather than older Australians who came into contact with fewer people – was a better strategy for the country to adopt from now on.

But Professor Jodie McVernon from the Institute  said Australia would need to get to 80 per cent of the population having been vaccinated before, “we would be more confident that some greater social freedoms might be allowed with that level of immunisation.”

That suggests that the closure of the travel bubble, certainly with new South Wales, will continue for some time yet.