The chair of the Strategic Covid 19 Public Health Advisory Group, Sir David Skegg with Covid 19 Response Minister, Chris Hipkins at yesterday's Forum.

What the Government really said yesterday was that over the next 12 months, it will tentatively take on more risk as it begins to open the borders.

That is why its advisors have been at pains to stress that the “elimination strategy” does not mean zero Covid.

But the country’s capacity to take on risk – that is, to manage community cases of Covid — will be limited by the lack of capacity in our intensive care beds in hospitals.

The chair of the Strategic Covid-19 Public Health Advisory Group, Sir David Skegg, told the Reconnecting to the World Forum yesterday that New South Wales now had 60 or 70 people in Intensive Care.

“I’d hate us to have to find spaces for that number of people in our ICUs,” he said.

Skegg highlighted the lack of ICU beds in his advice to the Government, which was released on Tuesday.

“The New Zealand health system is still poorly resourced to deal with any large outbreak of a disease such as COVID-19,” he said.

“As we entered the pandemic, the provision of intensive care beds (per capita) in New Zealand was less than one-third of the average among 22 OECD countries.

“New Zealand was in 21st place, followed only by Mexico.

“Although there will have been some expansion of facilities over the last year, this is likely to be modest in comparison with the countries that have been grappling with many thousands of desperately ill patients.”

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Otago University epidemiologist, Michael Baker, backed up Skegg’s comments.

“We know our health system cannot cope with the huge number of people turning up in intensive care, and that would displace people with other conditions,” he said.

“Intensive care is operating at full capacity every winter anyway.”

New Zealand’s inability to cope with a widespread outbreak of Covid is a large reason for the Government’s caution over opening up the borders.

POLITIK Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet CEO, Brook Barrington with Sir Brian Roche, the chair of the COVID-19 Independent Continuous Review, Improvement and Advice Group,

Nevertheless, what was apparent yesterday was that the desire to get business people back out and into the world was also on the Government’s mind.

Roby Fyfe, the former Air New Zealand CEO, who has been involved in advising the Government on Covid and business since early last year, said that he had hoped the borders would be open before Christmas, but Delta had changed that and were it to appear as it had in Australia “it would be a disaster from a business perspective.”

“We’re talking about reconnecting but actually if I look at things through a business lens, the thing that destroys confidence and viability of businesses is lockdowns,” he said.

“And what is very clear to me that business needs to be doing is doing everything they can to support people to get vaccinated.”

Fyfe said the constraints on the Managed Isolation and Quarantine system were causing a lot of anxiety within the business community.

“We focus a lot about people being able to come into New Zealand, but actually, it’s becoming a big inhibitor to people being able to travel overseas for essential work,” he said.

“There’s no easy way to suddenly just grow the capacity of the system that we have in place today.

“So I’m hopeful that we can look at alternative managed isolation solutions or isolation solutions.

“Obviously, at home is one of those that has a lot of complications associated with it.

“But people are so desperate they’ll do whatever it takes.

“If I had to wear an ankle bracelet and had to be in a place where no one else came and went from, well, that would be fine.

“Now, that’s not going to be fine for everyone, but it may take some pressure off the existing system if some people go through that pathway.

“So I think we have to be flexible to create solutions that work for different cohorts and different groups of people.

“And business, I think, will be surprisingly flexible.”

The Government appears to have listened to Fyfe and is proposing a trial home isolation scheme to run before the end of this year.

This will be available to groups of people who meet a tight set of criteria – New Zealand citizens and permanent residents who are fully vaccinated in New Zealand and have made a short trip away from New Zealand, travelling to an approved list of countries.

They will have to supply a self-quarantine plan as part of their application that meets the Ministry of Health’s requirements. 

“It is our intention to work with employers who need employees to travel for work for this pilot. The reason for this is the extra assurance that having an employer involved, with a bit of skin in the game, will provide,” said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announcing the scheme.

BusinessNZ CEO Kirk Hope welcomed the proposal.

POLITIK Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addresses the Forum

Ardern also announced as a first step, from next year, once everyone who was eligible has been offered a vaccine and there was reasonable coverage, “we will move to a risk-based ‘pathways’ system of travel.

“That means the nature of your entry into New Zealand will be dependent on a couple of key things – in particular your vaccination status and where you have been for the last 14 days.

Countries will be grouped according to risk. Factors considered will be the number of cases, the prevalence of variants of concern, vaccination rates, and our confidence in the country’s strategies for managing outbreaks.

“We have started already with our approach to Very High-Risk countries, but this will be broadened. Alongside vaccination status, the risk of the country will play a big part in determining the pathway for arrival into New Zealand.”

She said Cabinet had agreed to prioritise the development of the traveller health declaration system (to confirm vaccination status) and rapid border testing to increase testing options. This reduced risks and made it a lot easier for the traveller.

And – perhaps surprisingly — she is also setting up another study of testing technologies.

Their focus will be on testing technologies, approaches and feasibility, to make sure our work is even better informed by the latest and best developments in testing. 

This is despite the Ministry of Health and Institute of Environmental Science and Research studying testing technology with particular reference to saliva testing since the beginning of the year.

The Prime Minister has been equivocal when asked in the past about whether she would introduce a vaccine passport, but she said yesterday the Government would be establishing a system to confirm a traveller’s vaccination status.

“A digital tool is being developed by border agencies to help assess the level of risk of travellers to and from New Zealand. This is a traveller health declaration system and will require travellers to upload information before they arrive in New Zealand, such as their vaccination information,” she said.

“This will be both for New Zealanders going overseas, as well as people coming into the country.

“In the short term, a manual solution will be developed to allow passengers to arrive in New Zealand when border settings are ready.

In addition, Customs, the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Transport and other government agencies are kicking off a new work programme with airports and airlines over the next eight weeks to develop options for how to support a safe and smart reopening of the air border, similar to the work they did together to prepare for Quarantine Free Travel with Australia.

The group will focus on the pre-travel, en-route, arrival, and domestic stages of the overall travel and border process.

Even so, the border remains the country’s main protection along with vaccination against Covid.

Sir Brian Roche told the Forum that there was no shortcut.

“It is just a non-negotiable that we have to continue to strengthen every access point into this country, whether it’s an airport or seaport,” he said.

“And although it’s challenging, we are on the way to doing it.

“And I just think if we get a gap in the system, we’re exposing ourselves to the risk, which is completely avoidable, and we just need to get on with it.”

That is now the challenge.

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