3 Jul 2020

NZ must consider opening borders - Gluckman, Clark, Fyfe

4:46 pm on 3 July 2020

Three influential New Zealand figures are urging the government to consider reopening the borders, which could see the country reframe its elimination strategy.

Passengers arriving at Auckland Airport in January 2020 when public health staff began giving out coronavirus information.

Photo: RNZ / Liu Chen

The former chief science advisor Sir Peter Gluckman, former prime minister Helen Clark and ex-Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe say an extended delay in opening the borders will cause huge damage to the country's economy and social wellbeing, and it's now time to change the goals.

The current quarantine and testing processes are "ineffective" and could "come to haunt" the country if they are not replaced, they warn. And they should be replaced with more efficient and aggressive processes, which can cope with higher volumes of people coming in.

The trio joined forces to co-author a conversation paper released today, Re-engaging New Zealand with the World, with expert input from epidemiologist Sir David Skegg and digital contact tracing expert Dr Andrew Chen.

Speaking to Morning Report on Friday, Gluckman said planning for the future has become bogged down in an unhelpful shift to New Zealand's goals after the country went into lockdown - from trying to 'flatten the curve' of the numbers infected with the virus at any one time, to complete elimination.

"Nobody is saying open the borders today ... but at some time in the near future we have to have a strategy in place of gradually opening the border, because we cannot [keep it closed] indefinitely," he said.

The trio note Sir David Skegg's advice to the government Epidemic Committee that many epidemiologists accept "very low level" transmission within the definition of elimination.

"It is unrealistic to imagine that there'll never be cases of Covid in New Zealand. It's just logically inevitable." Gluckman said. "[Skeggs] made it clear that elimination meant reducing it to a predetermined low level - well we've done that, and we need to keep on doing that.

"The vaccine's still a long way away, there's no guarantee the vaccine will be complete coverage, some people will not accept the vaccine, and few vaccines are 100 percent protective. We can't sit here forever without thinking about the future."

Left to right, Peter Gluckman, Helen Clark and Rob Fyfe

Photo: Supplied.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand's borders will not be closed indefinitely, and work is under way to eventually lift some restrictions.

That will only happen when it is safe, she said.

When asked by reporters when she anticipated it would be, Ardern said it was a question better suited for scientists.

"Will they [border restrictions] be here forever? Well, actually when we have development of vaccines, treatment, reliable quick turn around testing, all of that will change the future scenario for our border," Ardern said.

'Human failures' will happen

No border protection measures could ever be foolproof, the trio said in the paper; "human failures will occur, and at some time a case will break through." But more aggressive detection and quarantine at the borders face that possibility head-on and reduce the risks, which means quarantine time could be reduced for those coming from low-risk countries.

'Cost-effective' tracing systems that could be considered include: a low-cost bluetooth-enabled card that could be distributed to every New Zealander, similar to one introduced in Singapore this week; or better cell phone bluetooth tracing options.

"Nobody is talking about changing the risk profile at all; unless New Zealand is prepared to stay in total isolation for the next two years or more, we are going to need to distinguish people of different levels of risk. And those of minimal risk still need to be assessed as they come into the country," Gluckman said.

"Countries like Taiwan, who have effectively controlled the spread of the virus are now cautiously reopening borders for some travel. We need to prepare.

"It's a matter of prudent government to start to think; 'now we've done so well, how do we proceed and keep the advantage that every New Zealander's achieved, but not create more problems into the future by not creating strategy and the necessary infrastructure."

Fyfe said the next step required a swift pivot from the government.

"We have gained global recognition and significant international advantage through the success of our stringent lockdown and early elimination of the virus, but that is now under threat.

"We will rapidly progress to a position of relative disadvantage if our trading competitors are able to engage with our customers and suppliers in ways that are not possible for us."

The trio said the looming September general creates a politically charged atmosphere, but it was still important for the government to transparently begin the process of exploring reopening the borders, and to engage the wider community in that discussion.

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