24 Feb 2020

Coronavirus travel ban likely to be extended, PM says

8:06 am on 24 February 2020

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern anticipates cabinet ministers will decide to extend the ban on foreign travellers arriving from mainland China - which is due to expire tonight.

People at Beijing Airport, nurses in Auckland and Christchurch are ready to test any unwell passengers arriving from China.

(file photo) Passengers at Beijing Airport last month. Photo: AFP

An initial two week ban was put in place in early February to try keep the coronavirus out of the country, and it was then extended for a further eight days.

China has pushed back strongly against the restrictions. The Chinese ambassador to New Zealand Wu Xi held a press conference last week to question why they had been imposed against the World Health Organisation's advice.

Ardern said the travel ban has been about reducing the possibility of an outbreak in New Zealand, but also to make sure we are ready if it comes here.

"We've taken steps to try, as much as we're able, to reduce the chance of transmission here.

"That alone is not enough, we need to prepare for the eventuality where we have a case in New Zealand - and we are," she said.

"Just to be clear, that travel ban was there to give us the ability to see what was happening with the way that the virus was transmitting.

"It's not realistic to say it was to keep coronavirus out for ever, it was to make sure we had preparedness, that we had the planning in place, that we understood well the way that the virus was transmitting. All that information has now been built up," Ardern said.

The WHO has warned that travel restrictions can cause more harm than good, but many countries - including the United States, Australia, and NZ - have pressed ahead regardless.

Health Minister David Clark declined to comment ahead of this morning's Cabinet meeting. In a statement, a Ministry of Health spokesperson stressed the measures were temporary.

"We don't want them in place any longer than they have to be which is why we review them every 48 hours."

New Zealand citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family are excluded from the ban, but are being told to self-isolate for 14 days after arrival.

No cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed in New Zealand so far.

Two New Zealanders from the Diamond Princess cruise ship who were hospitalised in Japan for coronavirus have been discharged, and two others remain in hospital in a stable condition, the Ministry of Health says.

One of the six evacuees quarantined at Whangapāraoa naval base was taken to North Shore Hospital for an unrelated health condition. They tested negative for Covid-19. The other five at the base remain well.

Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts told RNZ that businesses were missing out on up to $50 million a week in spending as long as the ban continued, but he understood people's safety must come first.

"The government needs to take the very best health and science advice and make their decisions based on that," he said.

"[But] when the travel ban can be lifted, when the evidence supports that, we'd like to see it lifted as soon as possible."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last week announced an $11 million funding injection for Tourism New Zealand, to market the country as a travel destination on the world stage.

Roberts welcomed the "good sum of money", but said the government may need to consider more direct support for struggling businesses.

"We don't want to see people in huge numbers losing their jobs... That's a difficult call for the government."

Otago University epidemiologist professor Michael Baker told Morning Report the virus now has all the characteristics of a global pandemic.

"[It's no longer] linked [just] to China, that's exactly what you expect now that there is sustained community transmission.

"That's really the key marker that this is a pandemic because you've got now sustained community transmission in Europe, the Middle East and in other countries in Asia, so I think now is the time to say this is a pandemic and it is going to affect every country on earth at some point over the next few months," he said.

Baker said while it is unpredictable what will happen in New Zealand, the government has done a good job keeping the virus of the country so far.

"The government is doing exactly the right thing in having border restrictions, we're not shutting the borders but they are being managed, I think that's exactly the right thing to do for as long as possible because this is buying us precious days.

"We should be planning very vigourously for community transmission in this country in some time in the next few weeks and months. If we look at what is happening in Italy, that's the experience we may well have ourselves in the foreseeable future."

Baker said the government should also be thinking about how it can protect the Pacific Islands from the coronavirus.

"Now is the time for really quite imaginative approaches for trying to protect them from this emerging pandemic."

Universities NZ has publicly requested an exemption for foreign students stuck in China, warning that tertiary institutions risk losing about $170 million in fees if the ban persists.

The Australian government has extended its ban till at least Saturday, but is allowing some high school pupils from China to enter on a case-by-case basis.

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