3 Feb 2022

Covid-19: Experts give stamp of approval to government's border re-opening plan

3:33 pm on 3 February 2022

Covid-19 experts have given their stamp of approval to the government's staged border re-opening plan but say one of its weak points is how self isolation and testing is managed.

Passengers at Auckland Airport as the Covid-19 regional boundary was lifted on 15 December.

Photo: RNZ / Nick Monro

From the end of February, vaccinated New Zealanders in Australia will be able to skip MIQ and instead self-isolate when coming home.

That will expand to all New Zealanders overseas from mid-March.

The country is expected to open up to foreigners from visa-waiver countries no later than July.

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said the shift to self-isolation make sense given the spread of Omicron in the community here.

He said the big question is around self-isolation which has greatly reduced testing requirements compared to MIQ and is a high trust model of people isolating at home.

"It's essentially two rapid antigen tests that people would do at day 0/1 and 5/6. People may not necessarily know how to do these tests properly, I don't know if there'll be very much support and supervision."

MIQ facilities will remain for unvaccinated travellers.

Covid-19 modeller and Canterbury University professor Michael Plank told the Science Media Centre that a staged border reopening will help mitigate the risk of a huge jump in cases.

He said there are currently about 50 Covid cases a day coming into the country but that could jump to 500 a day if the border was suddenly fully reopened.

"The staged re-opening means that travel numbers will increase progressively rather than in one big jump, which mitigates against this risk," Plank said.

Plank said the timeframe for the first step of reopening the border on 27 February seemed reasonable since by that time daily Omicron cases in the community would likely be in the thousands and the vast majority of vaccinated adults would be eligible to receive a booster.

Dr Emily Harvey, a senior consultant/researcher at Market Economics Ltd and principal investigator with Te Pūnaha Matatini told the Science Media Centre she was worried about the government's proposed testing regime.

"Unfortunately the proposed testing regime (Rapid Antigen Tests on day 0/1 and day 5/6) is underpowered and is likely to miss a large number of infections."

Harvey said rapid antigen tests need to be performed much more frequently than PCR tests to reliably detect the majority of infections.

She would like to see those in home isolation being able to do a RAT test every one or two days.

"Additionally, anyone in home isolation who develops symptoms should be required to seek a PCR test, regardless of the result of a Rapid Antigen Test," she said.

University of Otago senior lecturer Dr Lesley Gray said it was reasonable to look at a staged border re-opening given 94 percent of the eligible adult population was double vaccinated and the booster programme is underway.

She told the Science Media Centre that there are still people including children who are unvaccinated or who are more vulnerable to Covid-19.

"Therefore the arrangements for self-isolation and associated testing must be rigorous and able to be trusted by the general population," she said.

National welcomes end to MIQ but ACT says it should happen now

National Party leader Christopher Luxon said that the announcement would be welcome news for millions of New Zealanders who are overseas.

"Today's announcement is a victory for the 100,000 people who signed National's petition to end MIQ and the one million Kiwis around the world who, for the last two years, have been blocked from coming home to their family and friends," he said in a statement.

He said it is also good news for businesses and workplaces since it will allow critical workers into the country.

"We know that MIQ no longer makes sense so it's right that it should come to an end," he said.

The Green Party said that reopening the border must see additional steps to keep everyone safe.

The party's spokesperson for Covid-19 response Dr Elizabeth Kerekere said the government "needs to support Māori and Pacific providers to vaccinate children and give boosters to their whānau before we open to self-isolation".

"N95 or equivalent masks should also be given free to those who cannot afford them," she said in a statement.

While Greens immigration spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March said priority should be given to those who want to come home to reconnect with whānau.

ACT Party leader David Seymour said that the government is procrastinating over opening the border and the time to do it is now.

"Once again the Government has given itself a date where it could change its mind and slam the door shut again," he said in a statement.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs