12 Aug 2021

Covid-19: Govt's border announcement 'a wise stance' - experts

2:49 pm on 12 August 2021

The government has released its plan to re-open the border under a risk-based plan starting in early 2022 - so what do the experts think?

Covid-19 vaccination generic.

Re-opening the border will begin in early 2022, once the vaccine rollout has been widely delivered. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The government has been responding to the Skegg report on reconnecting New Zealand with the rest of the world.

Re-opening will begin in early 2022, once the vaccine rollout has been widely delivered.

New Zealand will also begin testing self-isolation instead of MIQ for vaccinated people this year and has brought forward dates for vaccine eligibility.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also signalled new measures may include mandated use of QR codes via the tracer app and mask use at alert levels 2 and 3.

Sir David Skegg, who headed the Covid-19 advisory group responsible for the report the government has been responding to, said he was "very encouraged" that the plan laid out by the government today "accords very well with our advice".

After the announcement by the government, the Science Media Centre gathered responses to the plan from experts.

University of Otago Professor Nick Wilson said "There are many excellent ideas in the government plans announced today - with these being informed by high quality scientific thinking in the Skegg report released yesterday.

"It is particularly good to expand the time between doses to six weeks as that will be better for the immunity of individuals - and will allow for more people to have at least one dose before any future outbreaks. Plans to have mandatory QR scanning in high risk settings and expanded mask use at higher Alert Levels are very welcome (and what has been argued for by experts for some time).

"But there are still unfortunate gaps in the national response that are not in the government's plans. For example, there should now be urgent prioritisation of all essential workers for vaccination in Groups 3 and 4 (ie, supermarket workers, truck drivers, bus drivers, etc). The lack of vaccination of such workers has been one of the reasons that Sydney is currently struggling with its Covid-19 outbreak. NZ should also be moving much faster on vaccinating 12-15 year olds as this can be done very efficiently in the school setting.

"While the NZ government is very good at prioritising protecting harm to health from the Covid-19 pandemic - it also needs to look at the wider social and economic issues as well. That is, it needs to commission integrated health and economic modelling that takes into account the adverse social and economic impacts of lockdowns - as some of us have recently published in the Australian context. This modelling work also shows that elimination is the best strategy from a health and an economic perspective.

"All things considered however, NZ continues to be a world leader with its elimination strategy and in taking a scientifically-informed approach to adjusting the settings to its tight border controls."

Professor Michael Plank of Te Pūnaha Matatini and University of Canterbury said it was "fantastic news that everyone over 16 will soon be eligible to book their vaccinations. As the rollout accelerates, this will let us get first doses to as many people as possible.

"We heard yesterday that, if the Delta variant of Covid-19 finds its way into the community, the government will likely impose a snap level 4 lockdown. This is a wise stance given how quickly Delta can spread. Expanding vaccine coverage into younger age groups, who are more likely to spreads the virus, will make it easier to control an outbreak if we do get one. This could shorten the lockdown or even avoid it altogether.

"Looking ahead, the roadmap looks like a sensible plan for gradually navigating our way towards a more open border, once the vaccine rollout is complete. The aim is to allow international travel to gradually resume, while minimising the number of cases entering the community and staying committed to stamping out outbreaks that will inevitably occur. This is consistent with the expert advice from Professor Skegg's committee.

"The challenges of managing Covid-19 outbreaks in the community will be formidable and should not be underestimated. But sticking with the "stamp it out" approach keeps our options open and prioritises the health of at-risk groups.

"A crucial question is whether border relaxation will happen before we have vaccinated children under 16. If it does, we will almost certainly see outbreaks spreading through schools. Whether to vaccinate children is a complex question and needs a careful analysis of risks and benefits. This should take into account the short and long term health impacts of infection, as well as the disruptions of school closures and absences, that will occur if we do not allow children to be vaccinated.

"The pilot scheme for vaccinated New Zealanders to travel overseas and then self-isolate at home is a sensible move. Importantly, this will only be for a few hundred people initially so the risk it poses is low. But it is important to design and test systems like this so that know what works when the time comes for a wider border reopening."

University of Otago Department of Primary Health Care said General Practice senior lecturer Lesley Gray said "until we see the detail of how home self-isolation will work and what the 'checks and balances' will be - both for home self-isolation and risk pathways for vaccinated Kiwis - it is difficult to comment in detail on the approaches.

"However, that the government is signalling these developments is good news for those Kiwis for whom travel overseas is required.

"The possibility of MIQ free travel in 2022 is welcome, so long as returning Kiwis can be adequately screened for negative pre- and post-departure Covid tests to ensure the protection of the many New Zealanders who do not or cannot travel overseas and those who are our most vulnerable to severe illness if they contract Covid-19."

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