NZ ponders route back to the world

·3-min read

New Zealand's leaders are dragging their feet on a reconnection plan with the rest of the world, promising details in a month's time.

Like Australia, New Zealand has followed an elimination strategy to fight COVID-19, which requires hard borders and a rigorous quarantine system.

But unlike Australia, Jacinda Ardern is yet to spell out even a top-line strategy on relaxing those restrictions.

Earlier this month, Scott Morrison unveiled a high-level four-stage approach to returning Australia to somewhere near pre-COVID normalities.

New Zealand has a goal of vaccinating every consenting adult Kiwi this year, an ambition that outstrips Australia, but is a long way from home.

With 17 per cent of Kiwis with at least one jab, the rollout - using only Pfizer vaccine - depends on a big surge hitting arms from this month.

Under 35s won't be eligible for their vaccinations until October.

While Kiwis - with their enviable death toll and very few societal restrictions since last year's harsh 53-day lockdown - are happy to be largely safe during the pandemic, many are casting their eyes towards the return of regular border arrangements.

Ms Ardern is not one of them.

The prime minister is yet to lay out a reopening strategy, saying only in May that New Zealand was in "phase two" of a plan.

Phase two includes opening the trans-Tasman bubble, and Cook Islands bubble, allowing travellers to move without quarantine, and potentially to Niue.

Quoting Ms Ardern, "beyond that we are relatively open-minded, and I do anticipate there will be other countries we can explore opportunities with."

This week, COVID-19 Minister Chris Hipkins was in no mood to discuss further candidates.

"I'm not getting into the reopening conversation," he said.

"One of our challenges is we just can't get data about what's happening in those countries to really genuinely assess the level of risk.

"Our capability there is growing, it is getting better, but at this point I'm not going to give you a list of who we think are more likely to be heading in the green direction versus those who are heading in the red direction."

Expectations for further reopenings, or relaxed rules for vaccinated individuals, may need to be lowered.

Ms Ardern has hand-balled the reopening operation to epidemiologist Sir David Skegg and a group of top officials.

"Recently we asked our public health advisory group led by Professor David Skegg to support our next update with a particular focus on requirements for travellers at our borders, we very recently received the first cut of that advice," she told TVNZ.

"We've asked some additional questions but are preparing to share that advice in a public forum... in roughly four weeks."

A number of questions around vaccine efficacy will drive how New Zealand will reopen.

"We will be relying heavily on emerging evidence about how effective vaccines are in preventing not just symptoms of the disease, but transmission between vaccinated individuals," Ms Ardern said, pointing to studies where transmission halved in vaccinated people, already less likely to catch COVID.

Another consideration is "the question of COVID variants".

"Pfizer is holding up well, but our reopening plan will need the flexibility to continue highlighting and responding rapidly to countries where variants emerge," Ms Ardern said.

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