2 Mar 2020

Coronavirus: Cabinet briefings on travel risks, border controls and economic impact

9:46 am on 2 March 2020

Today's Cabinet meeting will be dominated by New Zealand's readiness for more cases of the Covid-19 virus, including whether border controls are strong enough.

People at Beijing Airport, nurses in Auckland and Christchurch are ready to test any unwell passengers arriving from China.

Passengers at Beijing Airport. Foreigners are prevented from coming to New Zealand if they are arriving from or have transited through mainland China and Iran. New Zealand citizens and permanent resident are not part of the ban. Photo: AFP

The travel ban has been extended to include Iran, alongside China, but there are still other countries with large numbers of infections with no restrictions on travelling to New Zealand.

Ministers will discuss possible measures such as asking people arriving from places like South Korea or northern Italy, where there have been outbreaks, to put themselves into quarantine.

The current travel bans prevent foreigners coming to New Zealand if they are coming from or have transited through mainland China and Iran. New Zealand citizens and permanent resident are not part of the ban.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said there were good and clear reasons for the bans for both countries.

"China has been an epicentre, and Iran, we do not have a clear picture of the human- to- human transmission in Iran, there are also concerns about the ability of their health system to currently cope."

While there were outbreaks in other parts of the world, Ardern said the numbers were much lower.

"We do have confidence in some of the measures that have been put in place at those borders... border controls are also an assessment taking place at different points before travellers reach New Zealand."

People arriving in New Zealand are being manually processed at the border, she said, except those from Australia and the United States, who can still use the E-gates - but they are also getting information handed to them as they come through.

"We're constantly getting advice from our health officials around where we need to extend, if we need to extend ... New Zealand does have some of the more rigorous exclusions compared to other countries."

With countries like South Korea and Italy experiencing outbreaks, Ardern said ministers were "constantly checking in with our health officials to proactively say 'are there grounds here to extend the border restrictions that we have?'."

Cabinet will look at such "hotspots" and consider measures like asking people travelling to New Zealand from affected areas to self-isolate, rather than imposing full blown travel restrictions on more countries.

Health Minister David Clark told Morning Report the government was seeking advice from health officials on whether it was possible or advisable to ask people from particular regions to self-isolate.

"Of course technically that's difficult in the way that our passports and immigration work - with whole countries considered when you go through our immigration system rather than hotspot areas - but we know that the UK are looking at this so we're asking our health officials to have a look at what's possible in that area."

Clark said the New Zealander hospitalised with Covid-19 is continuing to improve. There was no evidence of further transmission and the likelihood of that was very low, he said. As he was aware none of the person's family had shown symptoms.

"We are anticipating that at some stage we will get sporadic cases arriving ... we've seen from our first case that by learning from what's going on internationally by taking the right measures - and here's a good Kiwi citizen who has taken the right steps - that we can be confident that we won't get a wider community outbreak as a result."

Airlines were being asked to make make announcements as passengers arrive and hand out health information including on how to self-isolate and how to get help from Healthline.

"The single most important thing is that people have information themselves so they know what steps to take, so if they are at all concerned they don't become spreaders."

Ministers will also be briefed on individual industries suffering financial impacts, including education, tourism and forestry.

Last week the government refused a request from the forestry industry to scrap the benefit stand-down period for those finding themselves out of work because of the Covid-19 coronavirus. In most cases, stand downs are one or two weeks after an application is approved, the Ministry of Social Development says.

People can also apply for hardship payments related to the economic fallout from Covid-19. The Ministry of Social Development had made 24 grants by late last week.

At the time Finance Minister Grant Robertson said the focus then was the support that could be provided and questions about the stand down period would be dealt with when it was clearer how long the impact would last.

Cabinet will look again today at whether there is enough support for forestry workers, and whether they are all aware of the government support available.

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