NZ rethinks border as Delta takes hold

Ben McKayAAP
International travel has been on hold since July, when NZ suspended the trans-Tasman bubble.
Camera IconInternational travel has been on hold since July, when NZ suspended the trans-Tasman bubble. Credit: AP

New Zealand's defeat by the Delta strain of COVID-19 could see a relaxation of international border rules by Christmas.

Jacinda Ardern's government is currently rethinking its quarantine system, known as MIQ, in light of growing community cases.

MIQ is used for both international arrivals and the vast majority of Kiwis who catch COVID-19.

However, as the government expects to hit triple-figure daily community cases soon - numbers unseen in NZ throughout the pandemic - it is looking to allow low-risk Kiwis to isolate at home.

"We're beginning to look at contingency planning and it may be needed relatively soon," Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said on Thursday.

The MIQ system is not currently strained, but will be if the trendline of cases continues.

Radio NZ reports 583 MIQ beds are designated for Kiwis with COVID-19, and as of Monday, 211 were in use.

A further 201 cases have been identified since then, with the likely surge in cases to challenge that capacity.

New Zealand's ask of international arrivals is also part of a policy rethink.

Currently, all travellers are asked to win a ballot for their place in MIQ, and complete a 14-day mandatory quarantine at their own expense.

That accounts for around 4000 other places - which could be used to house Kiwis with COVID-19 rather than low-risk international arrivals.

In the past week, the average number of daily cases picked up at the border is just over one, compared with 49 in the community.

"We are actively considering our MIQ settings in light of the fact that we are unlikely to get back to zero cases," COVID-19 Minister Chris Hipkins said.

"You can expect to see us talking more about that fairly soon."

Mr Robertson said the review was "a risk-based assessment", and the government wanted to "make sure that those who can look after themselves at home will look after themselves at home".

"Self-isolation was always part of the plan, we're now needing to bring some of that work forward."

A move to home isolation would allow overseas-based Kiwis to enter NZ in the lead-up to Christmas and summer.

It would be the biggest shift since the trans-Tasman bubble, which allowed quarantine-free travel between April and July.

New Zealand suspended that arrangment due to growing cases in NSW and Victoria.

While there are several COVID-free regions in both countries - including Wellington and the South Island - the government has not had an appetite to reopen the bubble.

In August, a major review suggested NZ move to a traffic light system for arrivals in early 2022, based on the COVID-19 risk profile of where travellers have come from.

It is unclear whether it will continue to pursue that plan, given the virus appears set to stay in NZ.

New Zealand has also issued a vaccine mandate to international arrivals: as of next month, all non-citizens arriving in the country must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

For future moves, the government is keeping a close eye on Australia's planned reopening next month.

"People wanting to move between New Zealand and Australia ... is one of the areas where there's the most pressure for movement," Mr Hipkins said.

"Whenever we're talking about any changes at the international border, Australia is one of those countries that is absolutely front of mind."

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