all people coming into the country at this point, have a degree of risk associated with them,
Sir David Skegg, the Government’s lead advisor on reopening, explains why his team has advised against liberalising the borders until the vaccine programme is complete.
Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins says the Government’s bold “reopening” plan for the world will have to be completely reworked in the light of the new outbreak.
The plan, unveiled last month, would have seen select vaccinated Kiwis able to self-isolate at home in the latter parts of this year after travelling overseas, and a more gradual reopening in 2022.
Key to the plan was a risk-profiling of other countries, so places with high rates of vaccination and low levels of Covid-19 could be treated differently to places where the virus was rampant.
But speaking to Parliament on Tuesday night, Hipkins said Delta had changed that plan – despite Delta being present around the world when the plan was revealed.
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“It would be fair to say that Delta has actually changed some of the thinking about that even in the last few weeks,” Hipkins said.
He said the risk-profiling was particularly problematic.
“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,” Hipkins said.
“Obviously, at the moment, the focus is on responding to the current outbreak, but I think we will have to look again at some of that thinking around particularly the country-risk profiling, because I think Delta has changed the game.”
He also said checks like pre-departure testing was looking to be less useful in a Delta environment as people could become infectious within 24 hours, meaning a test obtained 72 hours before a flight could be useless.
Hipkins said that would not mean that the Government would simply keep managed isolation requirements in place forever, however.
“Do we think it’s viable for a prolonged period of time to continue to restrict movement at the border to the, sort of, 4500 rooms’ worth of people in any given fortnight? I think the reality is it is not going to be viable to sustain that beyond the, sort of, immediate global response phase of Covid-19,” Hipkins said.
He said self-isolation would be part of that eventual change, but the wider elimination strategy would also have to change to respond to high levels of vaccination.
“We are going to have to think about alternatives to that. Things like self-isolation are part of the question. Things like the elimination strategy itself and how the elimination strategy evolves, first of all in New Zealand that has a high rate of vaccination… but also in a world that will increasingly become more highly vaccinated over the next year.”
New Zealand is the last major Western country pursuing an “elimination” strategy for Covid-19, with Australia recently ditching the idea in light of a huge outbreak in New South Wales and ramped-up levels of vaccines.
After questioning from ACT leader David Seymour, Hipkins confirmed the Government was not looking to abandon the strategy any time soon, but it could take a very different form, with far less border restrictions.
“I do just want to say that the Government, at this point, is still committed to an elimination strategy,” Hipkins said.
“In the early part of our Covid-19 response, the best way to achieve elimination was, once we had done the first wave of elimination, to keep it out of the country in the first place.
“We have elimination strategies for other infectious diseases, and we do that without necessarily needing to restrict movement at the border.”