6 Aug 2021

Hopes for a less strict MIQ system as vaccine rolls out across NZ

7:57 am on 6 August 2021

People in the tourism and infrastructure industries are hoping the government will soon change the way it assesses the risk travellers bring when they arrive in New Zealand.

Free application, at the Vasconcelos Library, of the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19, for people from 40 to 49 years who live in the Miguel Hidalgo borough in Mexico City, Mexico, on July 14, 2021.

File photo. Photo: AFP

The government says it will soon release some of the advice it has received on how it might open the borders once the country has reached a sufficient level of vaccination.

The prospect of systems other than managed isolation and quarantine are high on the agenda for those plotting for the future.

Epidemiologist Michael Baker said, looking at the pandemic through an optimistic lens, there is no reason fully vaccinated travellers could not be allowed into the community sooner.

That's if they come from a low risk country and have tested negative for the virus before departure.

A strict MIQ system is not necessarily needed, he said.

"We can look at Taiwan which made a lot of use of quarantine at home or in fairly standard rental accommodation for visitors," Baker said.

"For at least the first year of the pandemic, that worked very well. They did, for other reasons, have an outbreak related to aircrew quarantining or having very reduced quarantine and mixing with local people, quite a complex story.

"But it wasn't related to their home quarantine system, which appeared to work incredibly well."

Baker said, under a traffic light system, travellers who are fully vaccinated, have had a negative pre-departure test, and are coming from a low risk country, could feasibly remain in isolation for a matter of only days before being allowed into the community, after another negative test here.

He said that would be an evidence based move looking at how the virus and the vaccines work.

Tourism Industry Aotearoa's chief executive Chris Roberts said it would be a welcome change.

"I think we have to be open to new solutions and new ways of doing things, so that could be country by country but it could be a category of visitor who's been vaccinated who's coming from a country where we have faith in their health system.

"It could be a range of different requirements on the visitor depending on how we classify the risk."

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Michael Baker said a less strict system could be implemented if the right circumstances are met. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Rural Contractors NZ Chief Executive Andrew Olsen said he was hopeful of an easing of travel restrictions based along the same lines, but allowing skilled workers into the country.

He said there are 60,000-100,000 skilled workers that need to come into the country to help complete infrastructure projects, and New Zealanders cannot be trained in time to do those jobs.

"It's great that unemployment's low, but the availability of these workers to switch into this type of work is somewhat questionable," Olsen said.

"I know that the agencies are doing work right across the primary sector and in others and saying, look, we've got people but the but here is that the skills that are required just aren't sitting in that four percent [of unemployed people]".

Olsen said, at the moment, there was almost no opportunity to bring in skilled workers to fill gaps in the work force, even if they are healthy.

"They might be as healthy as you and I, vaccinated, double vaccinated, carrying a vaccination passport, but they'll have to do two weeks.

"We may have to look at that - vaccinated versus low risk, and what are all of those factors around the good health and wealth of our country?"

Of course, much could change by the time New Zealand has reached a good level of vaccination and there is any consideration of opening up the borders and changing the MIQ system.

Baker said new variants will come along and may change the game completely.

He said we should keep a close eye on the United Kingdom, where the government has dropped any restrictions and there are tens of thousands of cases per day.

"One of the effects that's fairly predictable is that you have high infection in a population that's slightly over 50 percent vaccinated.

"Virologists are saying that does create a lot of evolutionary opportunities to select for virus variants that can escape vaccine immunity."

If a vaccine resistant UK variant does emerge, plans to reopen the borders in New Zealand could be on hold indefinitely.

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