29 Dec 2022

Kiwis bigger Covid-19 risk than Chinese travellers - Michael Baker

4:54 pm on 29 December 2022
Professor Michael Baker

Michael Baker. Photo: Supplied

A leading Kiwi epidemiologist says rapid antigen testing (RAT) before people board planes from China would help protect passengers from coronavirus infections on flights.

But he doubts there is any point in reintroducing testing for Covid-19 at our borders.

The scale of the Covid-19 outbreak in China has prompted some countries to impose new travel rules, although there are no plans to reintroduce Covid-19 tests at New Zealand's border once residents of China are free to travel overseas and return without quarantine next month.

From 8 January, arrivals will only have to show a negative RAT taken sometime in the previous 48 hours to be allowed into China, where the virus was first detected in late 2019. The sudden change in policy is expected to see a surge in Chinese travelling abroad, sparking fears of a new wave of infection.

Testing of passengers on a flight from China to Italy this week found half of them were infected.

New Zealand, which once had border restrictions among the world's tightest, currently has no Covid-19 testing requirements, whether pre-departure or on arrival. Japan, Italy, Malaysia, Taiwan and India have all tightened the screws this week in response to China's growing outbreak.

University of Otago professor and epidemiologist Michael Baker said there was value in pre-departure testing.

"If you have a high proportion of Chinese travellers who are infected when they leave China, that's obviously going to mean there will be a lot of transmission during the flight - which I think is a real health risk for other travellers," he told RNZ.

"So I think there could be an argument for that - it would have a clear public health purpose."

But testing arrivals wouldn't be particularly useful, Baker said, because the main infection risk here is from other New Zealanders.

"At the moment, we're probably having around 10,000 infections within New Zealand every day. The number of people who might arrive from China who could be infected, well I don't think there's any at the moment.

"But when travel starts with China, it could be relatively small numbers so it's not likely to make a huge contribution."

More than 400,000 Chinese visitors arrived in the country in 2019 and spent $1.7 billion, according to Tourism New Zealand figures.

New Zealand's official Covid-19 figures show a rolling average of around 4500 a day, but that's considered to at best around only half of all infections, perhaps fewer. There are presently 482 people in hospital with the virus, down from nearly 600 before Christmas.

The Ministry of Health on Wednesday said "international arrivals, including from China, do not significantly change the risk of Covid-19 in New Zealand".

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said his country also has no plans to change its travel laws, but would "continue to monitor the situation".

"But we continue to encourage recent arrivals to get tested if they experience Covid-19 symptoms," a spokesperson said.

"At this point in time, there has been no change to the travel advice between China and Australia," he told the Sunrise program on Thursday.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong this month became the first minister to visit China since 2019. Albanese said to "wait and see" if he would follow suit in 2023.

China's reversal of its strict zero-Covid policy came after the biggest protests the one-party state had seen in more than 30 years.