Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins is expected today to announce new Managed Isolation and Quarantine requirements.
Newshub reported last night that MIQ stays would be halved to seven days, followed by three days of home isolation. That could happen soon.
And details obtained by POLITIK suggest that the Government is moving towards a much more liberal scheme, probably based on self-isolation, if not MIQ-free travel.
“We’re still working our way through this,” Hipkins said yesterday.
“There’s is a lot of complexity to consider.
“Of course, we have to consider the fact that the situation in Auckland and outside of Auckland is different.
“So we’ve got to make sure that we’re covering all of the bases in terms of the potential changes that we’re making there.
“And I’m also aware that people want to see a bit of a roadmap.
So we’ll make some changes fairly quickly, and then I think people will want to know what the roadmap is to further changes.”
The immediate benefit of halving the time in MIQ would be to release more rooms for New Zealanders stuck overseas trying to get home for Christmas.
As of the last voucher lottery on October 21 there were 3860 rooms allocated for November and 4582 for December. If those were to double because people were required to stay for only seven days then that could release another 8442 rooms.
However there were 17,852 unsuccessful applicants on October 21.
A hint of what might be in the road map ahead came in a recent briefing by a Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet official for international education providers.
POLITIK has obtained speech notes for the briefing by the official, Rob Huddart.
He said that borders would reopen in the first quarter of next year.
“It’s not clear exactly when (or if) borders will reopen in Quarter One 022, but it is likely to be a fairly short notice when Cabinet has confidence that all necessary elements are in place and there is no good reason to delay,” he told the meeting.
“All elements will be in place by Quarter One.
“The decision to make them live will then be based on other factors.”
Huddart said there was immediate work going on with vaccine certificates to meet travel requirements, traveller health declarations; rapid border testing; self-quarantine pilot and future borders collaboration.
That list sounds like a move towards self-isolation for international arrivals.
The initial phase of the planning would be ready by the end of the year, ready for opening next year, “subject to public health advice.”
“Noting that most travellers will be double-vaccinate, country of origin will not be the major factor in how arrivals are categorised,” he said.
“There is a discussion with Ministers as to how useful it is to use countries as a criteria for risk; may end up being a factor in ‘red’ only.” (“red” is presumably a reference to the red “traffic light” level.)
More relevant factors are likely to include: Medium risk – vaccinated travellers who pose a medium risk to NZ based on personal factors and high risk – all unvaccinated travellers, and those who pose a risk to NZ based on personal factors.”
Huddart’s notes are a significant variation on what was proposed back in August by the Covid Strategy Advisory Committee.
They argued for a country-based grading of travellers into three risk groups. That is a practice used by a number of countries such as Singapore.
Other jurisdictions also require Covid tests before departure from an overseas point and on arrival in their country.
From November 8, the United States will allow fully vaccinated passengers to fly to the United States, with only limited exceptions.
They will need to show documentation of a pre-departure negative viral test from a sample taken within three days of travel.
Singapore requires a seven day “stay at home” isolation period for fully vaccinated arrivals, but from November 1, New South Wales will not require any quarantine or isolation for fully vaccinated overseas arrivals.
There is, though, a debate about what sort of test to deploy at airports.
Nasal swabs or saliva PCR tests take time to process.
In his report on testing to the Government on October 7, Professor David Murdoch said there was a common misconception that PCR tests were rapid when they weren’t.
Rapid tests were so-called “RATS” or Rapid Antigebn tests which can work off a nasal swab and can provide a result in less than an hour.
But the trade-off speed with accuracy.
“While these are highly desirable characteristics, the main disadvantage of RATs is reduced sensitivity when compared with PCR testing,” Murdoch said.
“RATs typically have sensitivities that are significantly lower than PCR tests, depending on the stage of illness, the viral load of the individual case and the experience of the operator, but potentially as low as 40%. “
Nevertheless, Queenstown Airport is currently involved in a trial and its Chief Executive, Glenn Sowry, believes the tests have potential.
“By participating, we are ensuring that we will have testing kits available and be prepared to introduce rapid antigen testing for our team when it’s required,” he said.
.Hipkins also is forecasting greater use of them.
“I do think that rapid antigen tests are likely to be more widely used in the next part of our Covid response,” he said.
“Rapid antigen tests have some strengths and some weaknesses. Clearly, they’re less accurate than the PCR tests.
“So they have a place, but they have a place where they’re used appropriately.
“The last thing that we want to someone, for example, showing symptoms, getting a rapid antigen test which is negative and saying I’m okay and then subsequently turning out to be positive.
“So I think as we move to using rapid antigen testing more, we are going to have to educate people on the appropriate use of rapid antigen tests, which means if you’re having symptoms, the probably not the right tool to use, you’ve still needed to get a PCR test at that point. I wouldn’t rule them out, though.”
The details will emerge today, but slowly, we are beginning to see the outlines of what will be the new normal; a world with some Covid but more freedoms. Provided you are vaccinated.