Not only has the Government temporarily suspended taking bookings for Managed Isolation, but it is telling stakeholders that any opening of the borders under its proposed “Reconnection” strategy is unlikely to happen until next year.
The strategy provides for the staged introduction of quarantine free travel.
At this stage, the Government is still planning to run a pilot of its self-isolation scheme starting in October, but that will impact only a small number of travellers. And it is only a pilot.
Otherwise, the phased re-opening of the border will begin from the first quarter,2021.
POLITIK has learned this from accounts of briefings that are being given by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to businesses and organisations with an interest in the border.
But the New Zealand caution contrasts with New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian who said yesterday she wants to “lead the way” in allowing Australians to travel freely through Sydney Airport once New South Wales hits the 80 per cent double vaccination target.
“When we hit the 80 per cent double-dose number, which we anticipate will be in November, NSW looks forward to having our citizens enjoy international travel,” she said.
Here, between now and when there is some relaxation at the border, it is now clear that there will be significant pressure on the existing Managed Isolation and Quarantine facilities, in part, because of the extra demand placed on them by the current Delta outbreak.
There are currently 300 cases in MIQ facilities. Total MIQ capacity at present is theoretically 4000 rooms.
However, Covid Response Minister Christ Hipkins revealed yesterday that some of that capacity is currently out of action.
“We do have a current challenge in accommodating those positive cases in our community and those who cannot isolate safely at home,” he said.
“As a result of that, we have repurposed or are in the process of repurposing to further facilities to use for quarantine and for isolation of community cases in addition to the Jet Park, which has been the mainstay of our efforts in that area so far.
“That is putting further pressure on the network.
“We also have further investigations being done, and I’m expecting to receive the results of those in the next 24 hours of the Crown Plaza to ensure that we have isolated any risk there before anyone further is put into the Crown Plaza for isolation purposes.”
Before the advent of the Trans-Tasman bubble, arrivals from Australia were taking up about 1800 of the 4000 rooms.
Thus the combined effect of the increased number of Covid community cases requiring isolation along with the ending of the Trans Tasman bubble has put considerable pressure on the MIQ system.
So Hipkins is pausing applications for MIQ.
“We’re asking Kiwis abroad to play their part by being patient,” he said.
“I acknowledge that that is a very challenging thing to ask of them.”
The Government will defer some groups such as Recognised Seasonal Employer workers coming in from the Pacific islands to work in the horticulture industry.
Meanwhile, the Government is working o changes to the MIQ system, which will see applicants join a virtual queue from whom successful applicants will be randomly selected.
“It will not fix the overall issue of supply and demand,” he said.
“We still have more demand than we have supply available.
“And in periods of high demand, it is still going to be the case that we wanted to have rooms for everybody that wants to come home.
“But this change will make bookings more transparent and easier for people, and it will create a more level playing field for people once they are on the website. “
Government officials have provided more detail on how the “Reconnection” strategy will work.
They have told stakeholders that there is immediate work being undertaken on vaccine certification and a traveller health declaration, rapid border testing and the self-quarantine pilot.
The admission that work on rapid border testing is going on points to the introduction of saliva testing at the border through a Singapore company, Breathonix, has got provisional regulatory approval for a Covid 19 breathalyser which was able to achieve at least 90% accuracy after screening participants on-site for 60 seconds.
It is even simpler to administer than saliva testing.
The breathalyser is already in use at one of Singapore’s entry checkpoints with Malaysia.
The next steps in the Reconnection programme will depend on the vaccine rollout being complete by the end of the year.
It is slowly gathering steam, but New Zealand is still near the bottom of the OECD in terms of percentage of the population inoculated.
However, if all goes to plan and the vaccine rollout is complete by the end of the year, then the staged re-opening of the borders can begin.
There would be a phased implementation of three new pathways into New Zealand:
“Low Risk” would allow vaccinated travellers from low-risk countries to skip isolation altogether.
“Medium Risk” would require vaccinated travellers from medium risk countries to undertake modified isolation requirements — possibly, self-isolation.
“High Risk” would apply to unvaccinated travellers and all travellers from high-risk countries, and they would have to undertake 14 days in MIQ as at present.
The officials have told stakeholders that countries would be regularly assessed for risk alert levels and public health measures would still be in place, but lockdowns would be less likely.
Meanwhile, companies and organisations can apply this month to be part of the self-isolation trial which will test the “logistics of entering New Zealand into a self-quarantining pathway (checking in, moving through airports and travelling to accommodation); our ability to monitor compliance and the level of monitoring required and the workability of traveller health information processing.”
It is slightly discordant to have officials talking about opening up the border at a time when the country has acquired one of its most serious outbreaks because of a traveller from Australia, a country that was previously thought safe.
That is why the Government is proceeding with so much caution.