3 Feb 2022

New Zealand border reopening plan brings relief but MIQ pain unforgettable for some

6:27 pm on 3 February 2022

Some New Zealanders have jumped at the chance to reunite with loved ones and travel overseas, after learning the country's borders will slowly creak open this year.

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The government unveiled its five-stage international border reopening plan today. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

However, the government's five-stage plan comes as "too little, too late" for others, and does not spell the end of the MIQ system.

After four years separated from her son Michael, the expiry of his work permit in Ireland, and a "really tough time" enduring 11 unsuccessful MIQ lotteries, Wendy Duncan said she could not have been happier to hear from him today.

"He said, 'Hi Mum, this is Michael-coming-home-in-March speaking'. It was like, yay!" she said.

"He's absolutely thrilled to pieces. I'm just ecstatic that he's able to now come home."

The reopening plan will mean vaccinated New Zealanders from Australia can travel here at the end of the month and bypass MIQ, instead doing 10 days' self isolation on return.

By mid-March, the same will apply for Kiwis travelling from the rest of the world, and for critical workers and highly paid skilled workers.

On 12 April, 5000 international students will be allowed in, along with temporary visa holders.

In July, travellers can come from countries that do not need a visa, and in October, the border fully reopens to everyone else.

Those dates came as relief to some on the streets of Auckland today, who said they were looking forward to holidays overseas.

But others were frustrated at the slow progress to wind down MIQ, saying "it should have gone six months ago".

"There were a lot of people locked out under awful circumstances when we had people isolating in their own homes that had Delta," one woman said.

Passengers wearing masks arrive from New Zealand at Sydney International Airport on 16 October, 2020, during the operation of the trans-Tasman bubble.

Vaccinated New Zealanders from Australia will be able to travel here at the end of the month and bypass MIQ, instead doing 10 days' self isolation on return. Photo: AFP / David Gray

New Plymouth man Amrish said he was hoping to get to India to see his mum last month, but he had to cancel his plane ticket when the original border-reopening plan was pushed back.

She died last weekend, before he could see her.

"There are some people who still have time to do their travels. In my situation it's too little, too late," he said.

"I just hope that they stick with this announcement, because my trust is very little with the government."

Wendy Duncan said she would never forget the pain that the MIQ system put her through.

"It's absolutely heartbreaking. It's disgusting how this has played out, how they've stopped people coming home when they're double vaxxed, [and have a] negative test," she said.

Today, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was adamant the border reopening timeline would not change.

However, she said exactly when self-isolation requirements would ease, or be dropped altogether, was yet to be confirmed.

"We will keep it under constant review. What I can say is I expect we'll be at seven-day [isolation period] likely by the time we begin the first phase," she said.

Travellers will still need negative pre-departure tests and they will be given rapid antigen tests at the airport for use during their self-isolation.

There are steep fines of up to $12,000 for not complying with the isolation rules.

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Returnees will be given rapid antigen tests at the airport for use during their self-isolation. Photo: 123RF

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told Checkpoint the system would not be monitored or enforced on an individual basis, because that was not feasible.

"I certainly would not rule that out [random checks] ... I'm not going to say exactly that there would or wouldn't be [random checks] but we're not planning on wide-scale compliance approach to this.

"There will be follow up, but I can't ... give you a reassurance on the size or scale of that, but it's unlikely to be every single person."

Returnees would also able to travel domestically when they arrived if they needed to do so to get to their home, Hipkins said, with hopes that public health measures would reduce risk of transmission.

"We are accepting that there are going to be more cases, but if you look at our recent experience, we've actually managed to have a much more positive Covid-19 experience than many other countries around the world, so our Delta outbreak didn't reach anywhere near the peaks that the modellers were suggesting that it could do.

"And so far, our Omicron outbreak is below what many of the models would suggest that we would be at this point. So our public health measures are working and they're making a difference."

Some Aucklanders told RNZ they are still nervous about arrivals creating a possible uptick in Covid-19 infections.

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Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says MIQ facilities are still needed for now to support community cases as well as border ones. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

However one of the country's leading epidemiologists, Michael Baker, said he was comfortable with the timing of the border reopening, and it appeared to be a "sound" plan.

"Managing the borders tightly has been absolutely at the core of how we've got through the pandemic so well as a country. But it has a huge price ... in terms of limiting people moving across the border," he said.

For now, any unvaccinated people wanting to travel should not hope to bypass MIQ.

Ardern ruled out any timeline for that to be an option, saying it is "still such a critical factor as to whether or not, you are a., likely to get Covid, or b., become hospitalised or become seriously unwell."

For that reason, and to account for potential 'high-risk countries' MIQ will stick around for the foreseeable.

The prime minister said they would have a dedicated workforce and purpose-designed facilities, potentially even purpose built.

Hipkins said MIQ was still needed for now to help support community cases in the Omicron outbreak and more details on how many facilities would be phased out would become clearer over the next few months.

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