The plan to reopen New Zealand to the world has not changed in light of the Delta variant, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says, but there may be some delays.
The government early last month announced plans to have a risk-based border from early 2022, but University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker this morning warned that could be delayed for months by the outbreak of the Delta variant which sparked national lockdowns just five days later.
Baker said there were several reasons the reopening would be delayed, but the most obvious was limited resources. With so much effort being put into fighting the outbreak, there would be little left over for trialling new ways of doing things.
"The other big change of course, is I think all the countries we're going to be connecting more with now have the Delta variant."
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins also signalled in Parliament on Tuesday that Delta had changed some of the government's thinking "even in the last few weeks", and it now had to consider whether it was appropriate to open up to other countries given the risk associated with them.
"In a Delta environment where someone can be picking it up and being infectious within 24 hours, some of those things actually do need to be looked at again," he said.
Hipkins' National Party counterpart Chris Bishop however argued the government should have been ready for Delta.
"It's not like Delta's an entirely new phenomenon in the last two weeks which has forced a rethink," he said.
"The reality is we weren't ready for a Delta outbreak. Our contact tracing capability has not been well deployed or scaled up, we don't have saliva testing really rolled out in New Zealand; we're not using rapid testing - in fact rapid testing's banned in New Zealand; we don't have purpose-built facilities; only now are we doing an audit of our MIQ facilities in light of Delta ... it's taken actually an outbreak of it to cause that."
Bishop said the government could be criticised given Delta had been around long before Ardern's speech setting out the government's plan for reopening to the world.
"I think the government has been very spooked by this latest outbreak, but they should really have seen it coming ... we just needed to look across the Tasman to see what Delta does, how contagious it is, how transmissible it is and we really have had I think a degree of complacency that has set into our response.
"That speech was given at a time when Delta had been in New South Wales and other parts of Australia for quite a long time and in fact Delta's been in our MIQ facilities since early April and it's been raging around the world for most of this year."
But Ardern said this afternoon the government's plans had not changed.
"I think what we've always said is within this risk framework we've always got to be willing and able to adapt to the variants of concern.
"I think there's been an assumption that somehow our reopening plans have dramatically changed, I'd say that is not the case. We just have to build in, as I say, the impact of Delta in the way that we risk profile but we've always kept room for that."
She said there was nothing that would delay the overall timetable, but she was less clear about trials for home isolation due to start in October, echoing Prof Baker's concerns about resourcing.
"I've seen extra briefings come through for extra decisions to be made on that so it is continuing ... it will call on our health resources in order to be able to deliver it successfully, and we're just mindful in a level 3 environment there's a bit more constraint there, so we'll be thinking about that as we continue to make those final decisions on timing.
"On the overall timeframe no, no there isn't [any reason to delay], and in fact we're seeing our vaccination programme really speed up and the quicker we can move through that the more flexibility it does give."
Her assurances appear considerably softer, however, than Hipkins' statement in the house that "we were looking at a situation where you could stratify countries based on risk, and I think in the Delta environment, we actually have to consider whether, in fact, that's an appropriate thing to do, recognising that all countries, all people coming into the country at this point, have a degree of risk associated with them".
According to Bishop, given Ardern's speech just a little over three weeks ago and the presence of Delta at the time it may make little sense the settings need to be changed at all.
"Three weeks ago we could stratify countries based on risk in light of Delta, three weeks later apparently we can't - nothing has really changed other than the fact that we've had a Delta outbreak in New Zealand, but the government should really have been looking at those circumstances three weeks ago," he said.