New Zealand plans gradual border reopening as slow vaccine rollout criticised

Jacinda Ardern says it is too early to give up on elimination policy towards Covid-19

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern: ‘If we open our borders now, we will lose the freedoms and advantages we have achieved.’ Photograph: Getty Images

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern: ‘If we open our borders now, we will lose the freedoms and advantages we have achieved.’ Photograph: Getty Images

 

New Zealand will gradually reopen its international border next year but will maintain its zero-tolerance policy towards the spread of coronavirus as criticism of the country’s response to the pandemic mounts.

The government said on Thursday that it would also speed up its vaccination rollout, which is among the slowest in the developed world.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern said it was too early to give up on the elimination policy towards the virus, which has resulted in one of the lowest death rates and best economic performances in the world.

“Key to this is maintaining our elimination strategy,” said Ms Ardern. “The advice is clear: if we open our borders now, we will lose the freedoms and advantages we have achieved.”

She added: “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.”

It remains unclear exactly when or how the border will reopen but the government said it would begin trialling home quarantine for some vaccinated citizens from October. Ms Ardern said lockdowns would remain a tool to “crush” the virus when a Covid-19 case emerged in the community.

Vaccinated travellers from “low risk” countries would probably be the first to be allowed to enter without facing a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Ms Ardern has been praised for her early decision to close New Zealand’s borders and impose lockdowns to eliminate the spread of coronavirus. Just 26 people have died from Covid-19 and everyday life in New Zealand has returned to normal, with no requirements to wear masks or social distancing limits on sports or other events.

But as the rest of the world begins to reopen and international travel resumes, Wellington faces a difficult decision on how to ease its border restrictions without being swamped by the highly infectious Delta coronavirus variant.

Inoculation campaign

Several crucial industries and the healthcare sector, which are heavily dependent on migrant labour, face severe skills shortages and have lobbied for quarantine-free travel for vaccinated travellers.

This week, hospital midwives went on strike to demand better pay and conditions, arguing that they faced crisis-level staff shortages. “Emergency departments regularly run over capacity, and several have gone into red or black alert this year,” said Kerri Nuku, co-leader of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation.

“This massive pressure is burning out our nurses and prompting many to leave the profession or move to practise where they’re paid better, such as Australia. ”

The glacial pace of New Zealand’s inoculation campaign has complicated efforts to reopen borders, with only about 17 per cent of the population fully vaccinated.

This has contributed to a sharp decline in public support for Ms Ardern’s Labour Party, with a Newshub-Reid Research poll showing support for it at 43 per cent, an almost 10 per cent decline since May.

Grant Duncan, professor of politics at Massey University in Auckland, said the slow vaccine rollout had dented the government’s popularity and that the reopening strategy would be vital to their political fortunes. “If they mess this up, it would destroy political capital,” he said.

On Thursday, Ms Ardern said the vaccination rollout would be reconfigured to enable all adults to book a first dose by September 1st.

Nick Wilson, public health professor at University of Otago, warned that if vaccination levels did not rise quickly, the reopening strategy could fail, with virus outbreaks overloading the healthcare system.

“This could force the government into expensive lockdowns at the suburb or city level,” he said. “Even if vaccination levels are high, there might still be outbreaks that include vaccinated people.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021