5 Feb 2022

Border breakthrough: Ending the siege of Fortress New Zealand

From Focus on Politics, 10:00 am on 5 February 2022

"It's time to move forward together, safely" - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Fortress New Zealand - the 'hermit kingdom' - is soon to be no more.

For almost two years, Aotearoa has been cut off - foreigners for the most part have been barred entry, with returning New Zealanders having to complete a stay in government-run managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ).

Limited capacity has at times made it near impossible for some New Zealanders to come home, eventually leading to the online lottery system.

That situation was brought into stark relief this week by Charlotte Bellis, a pregnant Kiwi journalist stuck in Afghanistan, who published an open letter in the Weekend Herald detailing her struggle to return home

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Graphic: RNZ / Vinay Ranchhod

The extreme border measures have undoubtedly saved lives and secured New Zealand's relative freedom from the virus.

But they have also curtailed the freedoms of those wanting to come here and caused tremendous heartbreak for families cut off and citizens stranded.

As epidemiologist Michael Baker acknowledged, with Omicron expected to spread widely within the country, the hard border would become harder to justify.

"Once we get to the point of having thousands of Omicron cases a day in New Zealand, MIQ's role is very different," Prof Baker says.

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Ministers swiftly moved into clean-up mode. On Tuesday, Cabinet met to discuss its timeline for phasing out MIQ. 

On Wednesday, booster dose eligibility was expanded to an extra million New Zealanders by shortening the interval after the second dose

And on Thursday, Ardern delivered a speech in Auckland detailing the five-stage reopening plan

  1. 11.59pm 27 February: Self-isolation opens for New Zealanders and eligible travellers coming from Australia
  2. 11.59pm 13 March: Open to New Zealanders and eligible travellers from the rest of the world; skilled workers earning at least 1.5x median wage; working holiday visas
  3. 11.59pm 12 April: Offshore temporary visa holders who still meet visa requirements; 5000 international students; consideration of further class exemptions for critical workforces that do not meet the 1.5x median wage test
  4. By July: Anyone from Australia; visa-waiver travel; a new Accredited Employer Work Visa opens and skilled worker exemption is phased out
  5. In October: Border reopens to the rest of the world, all visa categories fully reopen

"I know while many will celebrate today’s reopening, others will feel anxious about the resumption of people across our border," Ardern told New Zealanders.

"But here are the safeguards: we will be as boosted as possible at the end of February, the phasing reduces the risk of a surge in cases, and travellers will be testing and isolating, with MIQ remaining for the unvaccinated."

Her talk of balance, of a managed approach, reveals the tension behind the plan. Closed borders have given many New Zealanders a feeling of security, but some - like ACT's David Seymour - call it too cautious

Many businesses welcome the overall change in strategy, but want it to go further. Flight Centre managing director David Coombes fears seven to 10 days of isolating will put off potential visitors.

For now, Ardern and her ministers have been careful to hedge their bets, noting the situation will change as time goes on. Widespread Omicron could yet mean the need for self-isolation will evaporate before too long.

Ardern has been clear: reconnection does not mean a return to life before Covid-19, and the coming weeks are likely to bring a tidal wave of cases across the country.

There's a certain irony that Omicron's evasion of the country's border protections has made it easier to reconnect with the world. Unfortunately, it comes with a cost and one New Zealanders have yet to see.

In today's Focus on Politics podcast, Deputy Political Editor Craig McCulloch recounts the siege of Fortress New Zealand and reckons with its reconnection to the world. 

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