Thursday, August 12, 2021

Planning to open the door

Today Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the roadmap for New Zealand re-opening its borders. As with everything else in the NZ Government’s response to Covid-19, it’s measured, cautious, and evidence-driven. The strategy has served us very, very well so far, staying the course is definitely the right thing to do.

The Prime Minster laid out the basics:
The plan announced today is informed by the best available scientific evidence and public health advice. It will allow us to capture the opportunities vaccination brings, while protecting the gains New Zealanders have worked so hard for. Key to this is maintaining our Elimination Strategy. The advice is clear: If we open our borders now we will lose the freedoms and advantages we have achieved so far. If we give up our elimination approach too soon there is no going back, and we could see significant breakouts here like some countries overseas are experiencing who have opened up early in their vaccination rollout.
The first step in the process is to vaccinate as many New Zealanders as possible. To help with that, the government is speeding up the vaccination process (see graphic up top) by making new age bands eligible to register for vaccination each week until September 1, when all New Zealanders aged 16 or over will be eligible for their first vaccine dose (the vaccine has not yet been approved for those under 16, though that seems likely).

To make sure that as many people as possible get their first doses, the government is increasing the time between jabs to six weeks from the current three. The goal is to get New Zealanders at least partially vaccinated as soon as possible because that provides at least some protection. Those who already have their second jab scheduled (like me) will still get their second jab at the three-week mark, though they can re-schedule if they want to.

This is sort of a bridging strategy, moving from the current policy of elimination to one in which opening the borders could become possible. The more people that are vaccinated, the better able New Zealand will be when a case of the Delta Variant arrives here through a port or the airport. That’s about keeping the country safe right now.

Related to that, and learning the lessons from the major outbreak in Sydney (See also, “What went wrong in New South Wales”The Spinoff), yesterday the Minister for Covid-19 Response, Chris Hipkins, announced a change to the way lockdowns might be handled if the Delta Variant is found in New Zealand. He said:
It is more likely that we would end up with a short, sharp move to Covid-19 alert level 4 for either the affected area or the whole country, depending on the circumstances, in the event that we saw a case of Covid-19 emerge. As we know from our own experience, the best public health response is also the best economic response. We don’t want to spend a drawn-out period of time with restrictions in place, and a short, sharp lockdown is more likely to be successful in the current context than a longer, more drawn-out lower-level response.
In sum, NZ could jump to complete lockdown if the Delta Variant gets here, but what’s certain is that the government wants to rapidly vaccinate as many New Zealanders as possible. The first is to keep us safe, as is the second, but that’s also about opening the borders.

Beginning in October, New Zealand will a run pilot programme allowing vaccinated workers to isolate at home when they return to New Zealand, rather than spend time in an MIQ facility. There are details to be worked out, and one suggestion has been to require those self-isolating to wear ankle bracelets like prisoners on home detention do. This is because there has to be some easy way to verify that folks isolating at home are at home isolating, which is vital to keep us all safe.

If all goes well, in the first quarter of 2022 vaccinated New Zealanders will be able to travel to countries the NZ government considers to be “low risk” and then return home quarantine free. At the moment, the only country New Zealanders can travel to/from without quarantine is the Cook Islands (it used to exist for Australia, too, but that’s been suspended).

Vaccinated people who travel to “medium risk” countries will be required to isolate at home upon their return, have a shorter stay at an MIQ facility, or maybe something else. If at home, they’ll only be allowed to isolate with people who they travelled with. All of that will depend in part on how the pilot programme goes.

Anyone returning from a “high risk” country would be required to stay in managed isolation for 14 days and return a negative Covid-19 test, regardless of whether or not they were vaccinated. This is the current policy for everyone entering New Zealand.

In every case, what matters is where the traveller spent the fourteen days before returning to New Zealand. And, as with the Australian travel bubble, it could all stop suddenly if there’s an outbreak and travellers could be stranded overseas. As before, it’s “traveller beware”.

Right now, it’s absolutely impossible to know what countries might be on which list six months or more from now, because we can’t know what the course of countries’ outbreaks or vaccination rates will be. However, it seems at least possible that the United States and the United Kingdom will both be on the “high risk” list, and Australia could be back on the “low risk list”. (See also, “Covid-19 travel: Which overseas destinations could Kiwis visit in 2022?”Stuff).

There’s one more thing that will impact this: Proof of vaccination. At the moment, there’s no verifiable way to prove one has been vaccinated. New Zealanders can get a statement from the Ministry of Health, but that would only be usable when arriving back in New Zealand. The travel industry is working on an electronic system, and my guess is that this is more likely to happen than some sort of international standard, particularly because of political opposition in some countries. Verifiable proof of vaccination will be mandatory, obviously, for any foreigners wanting to travel here, and they’ll need to comply with any isolation/quarantine requirements in force at the time.

For me personally, I still think the risk is too great for me to even consider travelling overseas. I have to have someone look after my furbabies while I’m away, so if I got stuck in another country for, say, four weeks longer than I planned to stay there, that would be huge a problem. More immediately, I’m going ahead with my second jab next week because my health conditions mean that I’m at potentially greater risk of serious illness if I catch the virus, and being fully vaccinated will make that less likely. I’m aware that there’s some research that suggests that a longer time between jabs may actually improve the immune response, but at the moment I think that the immediate risk is greater than the potential benefit of waiting, especially because new variants may erase whatever advantage that waiting another three weeks might give me.

It’s a given that we can’t have the borders completely closed forever, and I think the government’s cautious approach is the right one. "Our plan to reopen our borders both protects the gains we have won, while setting us up to safely reconnect New Zealanders and business with the world and seize the opportunities created by our Covid success,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said. I think she's right. First things first, though: We need far more people to be fully vaccinated.


Roger Owen Green said...

I hope you Kiwis keep those damn Americans out. They're IDIOTS!

Arthur Schenck said...

Right now, it seems improbable they'd meet the requirements for entry into New Zealand. However, that also means that I couldn't travel to the USA without spending two weeks in mandatory quarantine, something that, at the moment, isn't easy to do, even if I wanted to. I think it's unlikely to be any easier in six months.