The New Zealand government has rolled out plans to slowly reopen its borders to international travellers at the beginning of next year.
Kiwi Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern unveiled a new framework for reopening the country at a forum in Wellington on Thursday.
She said the government would use the second half of this year to vaccinate as many Kiwis as possible in preparation.
“Getting vaccinated is the number one thing everyone can do to be protected against COVID-19, help accelerate our economic recovery, reduce the risk of lockdowns, and safely allow New Zealand’s borders to begin re-opening next year,” Ardern said.
“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.”
Thanks to New Zealand’s strict elimination strategy, the country has had no community cases of COVID-19 in 165 days and has only recorded 26 deaths since the virus broke out.
“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,” Ardern said.
“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 country plans to speed up its vaccination rollout by bringing forward the eligibility dates for the remaining groups and delaying second shots of the Pfizer vaccine so more people can get their first jab.
“We are moving to a six-week period between doses, meaning more people can get their first dose quicker and ensuring everyone is at least partially vaccinated in the coming months,” she continued.
“Those who work at our border, have underlying health conditions or wish to be fully vaccinated sooner can still get their second dose after three weeks.”
Under the new plan, all age groups will be eligible for vaccination by 1 September.
Once enough people are vaccinated, the next government will begin the second step in the plan: an individual risk-based approach to border restrictions in 2022.
This phase will categorise those entering New Zealand into low, medium or high-risk groups based on how likely they are to cause a break out of COVID-19.
Each risk group comes with a different set of guidelines for what measures the person must take before they are free to move around the country.
“The low-risk pathway will permit quarantine free entry for vaccinated travellers who have been in low-risk countries,” the Kiwi Prime Minister said.
“The medium-risk pathway would include a combination of self-isolation and/or reduced MIQ for vaccinated travellers who have been in medium-risk countries.
“The high-risk pathway will see the continuation of a full 14 days in MIQ and testing for unvaccinated travellers and any traveller, including vaccinated travellers, who have been in very-high-risk or high-risk countries.
“This individual risk based approach requires new systems to be set up. We will use the remainder of 2021 to continue to prepare for the operation of borders under this system.”
To prepare for the medium-risk pathway, the NZ government plans to run a self-isolation pilot this year by inviting businesses and organisations that need to send staff overseas to test the process out.
Ardern said the government will work on the development of a traveller health declaration system in preparation for the opening, as well as investing in new testing technology for rapid testing on arrival at airports and strengthening other public health measures such as contact tracing.
“New Zealand remains in a strong position. We don’t have COVID in the community and our economy is more open than most,” Ardern said.
“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.”
Joel Katz, managing director for Australasia at the Cruise Lines Industry Association, said that while a phased reopening of New Zealand’s borders will be a positive step forward for the tourism sector, provisions for a careful resumption of local cruising should be included.
Katz said New Zealand would need an agreed framework to support tightly-managed local cruise operations, beginning initially within a domestic or trans-Tasman bubble.
“Cruise lines globally have committed to stringent new testing procedures and health protocols in response to COVID-19, and these measures are already working successfully where cruising has resumed in other countries,” he said.
“As New Zealand plans for its reopening, we need to discuss how to implement these health protocols locally so that we’re ready for a careful revival of cruising as soon as conditions allow.”
Katz said cruising was ordinarily worth around NZ$570 million a year to the New Zealand economy and supported thousands of local jobs, including in many regional locations around the country.
“This is a vital part of the New Zealand tourism economy, so we need to partner with government and work towards its revival,” he said.
“It’s not a matter of simply opening the doors – we need to agree on detailed plans for a carefully controlled resumption that starts small and moves forward in a way that works for New Zealand.”
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