5 Jul 2021

Covid-19: Purpose-built isolation facilities needed - Fyfe

From Checkpoint, 5:06 pm on 5 July 2021

Government Covid-19 business adviser Rob Fyfe believes it is time to look at purpose-built isolation facilities.

He is amongst many, including fully vaccinated people, who cannot travel offshore as managed isolation (MIQ) spots are booked up, meaning he would not be able to get back into New Zealand.

Checkpoint has heard from several business leaders who say the limits around MIQ are costing millions in lost trade.

At the end of June, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison unveiled a four-phase pathway out of Covid-19. New Zealand's government has not yet revealed any plans to change border restrictions for vaccinated people in the future.

Fyfe told Checkpoint he would like to see border restrictions relaxed by the end of 2021 or early 2022.

But the former Air NZ boss is warning businesses even when the border does open, they should be prepared for it to snap shut at any point.

Asked if he could help with perhaps ring fencing some spots in MIQ to help businesses, he said he was unable to offer an immediate solution.

He was affected himself; he was hoping to travel overseas in November but is finding it "incredibly frustrating" trying to secure an MIQ booking.

He expected that when more rooms are released shortly for the last two months of the year, people like him would be up against many New Zealanders living overseas and wanting to come home for Christmas.

The two biggest issues he was hearing currently from the business community related to the scarcity of places in MIQ, he said.

It was having an impact on businesses' ability to send staff overseas which could restrict their competitiveness as the world opens up and companies were also unable to recruit foreign workers, particularly for critical roles.    

A long-term solution was needed, he said.

"I think we need something more than requisitioned hotel rooms and we're seeing a number of countries now around the world now starting to invest in dedicated MIQ facilities. I think that's absolutely something we need to be exploring as a country."

Reopening plan depends on high vaccination rates

Fyfe said while businesses were keen to see the border reopen as quickly as possible, it needed to be done safely.

"The last thing that businesses want is flip-flop on-again, off-again. That's the biggest risk if we go too early.

"From my perspective we have a plan. But the plan is really simple - we just need to get everyone vaccinated. There is no other solution to being able to open the border safely.  

"So that is the number one focus, and the most important thing that I send the message to business that they can be doing is helping to support their employees to get vaccinated as soon as it's available."

Businesses need to plan

He hoped the border could gradually reopen by the end of this year or early next year with quarantine requirements being relaxed for low risk travellers - people who were vaccinated and travelling to and from low risk countries.

However, he also warned businesses that with variants arising more frequently they needed to plan for a range of scenarios, including that a variant may arise that the vaccine was not effective against.

"None of us can sit here today and get a guarantee what the world is going to look like in six months' time or nine months' time or probably even three months  if I'm to be honest."

Fyfe believed if the country could achieve high vaccination rates that would mean any New Zealander who could prove they had been vaccinated and was travelling to a low risk country the border would be open, while for people from high risk countries and an uncertain vaccination status, the requirement would still be to spend time in MIQ.

"I suspect we'll see the border open progressively and that will be the case for most countries, but the reality is the first and most important step is we just need to get the vast, vast majority of New Zealanders vaccinated."

He said when the border reopened there would still need to be pre-departure and testing on arrival while public health measures such as scanning for the likes of stores and restaurants would remain in place - although New Zealanders would need to become better at this.