Australian Tourism Minister, Dan Tehan, yesterday told the country’s National Press Club that he hopes fully vaccinated Australians returning from overseas will be able to quarantine at home before Christmas.
He also said he hoped the quarantine period would be shorter than the current 14 days.
Covid-19 response Minister Chris Hipkins said yesterday that New Zealand was only just starting its home quarantine trial.
As a consequence travellers entering the country would continue to need to stay in Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ) facilities for 14 days.
And Hipkins acknowledged to a Parliamentary Select Committee yesterday that around 21,000 people hoping to come for Christmas would not be able to get quarantine rooms.
Hipkins has consistently said that the key to opening the borders to quarantine-free travel will be New Zealand reaching a high rate of vaccinations.
He refuses to specify a figure but the Director General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, has suggested 90 per cent and the Auckland physicist and statistics modeller, Professor Shaun Hendy, has advised Treasury that the vaccination rate would need to go to 97 per cent to establish herd immunity.
Australia has set a target of 80 per cent to allow the opening up.
Both the Prime Minister and Hipkins were yesterday proclaiming Ministry of Health figures which showed that 40 per cent of the country was now fully vaccinated and 75 per cent were booked in or vaccinated with at least one dose.
Pressing the Minister at the Health Select Committee on what the vaccination target might be, ACT Leader David Seymour asked if the plan was now to get high enough vaccination rates the hospital system would be able to handle any outbreak.
Hipkins replied that there was not one single factor.
“It’s a balance of all of the factors,” he said.
“It will include what’s the overall vaccination rate, and what the rate of vaccination is among different age cohorts, different ethnicities, different socioeconomic areas and different geographical areas.
Those things will all come into play.”
He said other factors would be the effectiveness of the vaccine against the variants that we were currently seeing, and health system readiness.
The Committee heard that there were 23,000 people aged over 65 who had not yet had any jabs.
Jo Gibbs, the National Director of the Covid Vaccination Plan said the Ministry had been actively phoning all of those people as well as primary care and home providers contacting them too.
She said from today those elderly who could not leave their homes would be able to be vaccinated at home.
And Hipkins told Parliament that only 50 percent of eligible Māori have received a first dose,
“There clearly is still more work that we need to be doing,” he said.
“The Ministry of Health is using the data that we have available to drive an approach that’s focused on those populations who have lower vaccination throughout New Zealand, including Māori.”
But vaccine hesitancy, if not opposition, is clearly a worry for the Government.
Hipkins told the daily Covid media conference that setting a target could mean people felt no need to vaccinated.
“When we talk about 90 per cent, that’s not an invitation to 10 per cent of New Zealanders to say, I’ll just sit back and be part of that 10 per cent,” he said.
“We need everybody in New Zealand coming forward and being vaccinated unless they have a reason not to do a very good reason not to.
“In that group is a very, very small group. The people who have a medical reason not to be vaccinated, we’re not talking lots of people.”
But Opposition Leader, Judith Collins, in what looked suspiciously like a dog whistle to the anti-vax movement yesterday continued her call for employees to be able to refuse to be vaccinated even if their employer requires it.
She told the AM show that employers shouldn’t make vaccination against Covid 9 compulsory, fearing we’ll “end up with two classes of people in this country” if they did.
“There’s no other illness, virus or anything else that people have to have an immunisation to stay in a job,” she said.
But perhaps surprisingly, the politician who many might have thought most likely to agree with the anti vaxers immediately countered Collins’ comments.
“No person should be asked to work with someone posing a risk to them when that risk could have been mitigated,” said NZ First Leader Winston Peters.
What must also worry Hipkins is that the rate of vaccination appears to be slowing.
Last week vaccinators were jabbing over 60,000 a day; on Tuesday only 52,000 doses were administered.
But regardless, though the future of the trans-Tasman bubble will not be confirmed until November 12, its closure on July 23 has emant a massive increase in the number of people seeking Managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ).
When the bubble closed approximately 22,000 people a month were travelling under the terms of the bubble from Australia to New Zealand.
Many will have postponed their trips, but those now wanting to come must enter the MIQ system and are one of the reasons why it is now clogged up.
Last Monday 32,800 New Zealanders applied for vouchers to enter MIQ before Christmas; it is estimated that 25 per cent of them were coming from Australia.
It now looks likely that possibly 21,000 of them will miss out on MIQ places.
Monday, 3205 vouchers for MIQ were allocated.
Another 7000 vouchers remain to be released.
But Naitonal MP, Simon Watts, pointed out to the Committee yesterday that the system had a capacity of 4000 rooms a week which left 24,000 rooms to be allocated by the end of year.
Hipkins said many rooms were already allocated to groups such as Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers or fishing industry employees.
Another 550 rooms a week are reserved for emergency applications or time sensitive travel.
MBIE defines that as travel that relates to a critical public or health service or essential infrastructure.
The CEO of MBIE, Carolyn Tremain told the committee that only about 54 per cent of the applications for this category of room were successful.
Even so, Watts’ figures suggest that there is a disproportionately small number of rooms bneing allocated to ordinary travelers, or, as is currently the case, Kiwis trying to get home for Christmas.
Their big hope must be that the vaccination rate will be sufficiently high, and the Australian state infection rates sufficiently low, to enable the bubble to be reinstated in late November.
But then there was this intriguing exchange at the end of yesterday’s media conference.
Media: “Is there a chance that for MIQ we could prioritise vaccinated returnees?”
Hipkins: “Watch this space.”
Media: “Are you looking at it?”
Hipkins: “There are international developments around the requirement for vaccines in order to travel, and we are certainly involved in those discussions.”
Maybe. But the only thing certain at present is that everything for the meantime continues to depend on the vaccination rate.