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When can we safely open the borders? – Expert Reaction

The more infectious Delta variant of Covid-19 means a large chunk of New Zealand needs to be vaccinated before we can begin to re-open the borders, according to new science advice.

The Strategic COVID-19 Public Health Advisory Group also advises that the borders be re-opened in phases, and that officials take into account risk factors like a traveller’s vaccination status and Covid-19 prevalence in the countries they visited.

See here for expert comments on the government announcement that followed this science advice.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the advice. 

Professor Shaun Hendy, University of Auckland, comments:

“The Group has considered evidence from overseas as well as modeling inputs from Te Pūnaha Matatini and concluded that we should not look to significantly relax our border settings until the vaccine roll-out is complete. This is very sound advice, especially given the challenges that the world currently faces as it deals with a wave of new Delta infections. Once the vaccine rollout is complete the risks of a large-scale COVID-19 outbreak in New Zealand will diminish and should be able to be managed without the need for the stringent lockdowns that were needed last year.

“Until that point however, any relaxation of border controls would almost immediately require further lockdowns to manage the virus. Even so there remains considerable uncertainty in the medium term outlook, especially when it comes to the emergence of new variants, so New Zealanders should be prepared for at least some border restrictions (e.g.mandatory tests and/or proof of vaccination) to be in place for some years to come.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I’m a Special Advisor to the Group, but was not involved in writing the advice.”

Lesley Gray, Senior Lecturer, Department of Primary Health Care & General Practice, University of Otago, comments:

“The news of plans to begin preparatory work for phased and well managed reopening of the borders once Aotearoa New Zealand has a high level of vaccination coverage will be very welcome news for families and whānau separated during the Covid-19 pandemic and for the many New Zealand workers whose roles require them to travel outside the country or migrant workers who are desperate to see their families.

“The strategy of MIQ for all incoming travellers is currently serving us well, especially with the harms of the Delta variant we are seeing in Australia right now and despite the challenging voucher system for those desperately still trying to get back to NZ. However as our vaccination rates rise we must look to managed travel arrangements including reduced need for MIQ for fully vaccinated travellers testing negative pre departure and rapid testing on arrival travelling from low risk countries. Technologies are becoming available for reliable rapid testing. I urge authorities to prepare well for a comprehensive border system to ensure no abuse of the system is possible.

“Having had to travel overseas for a bereavement recently I experienced the multiplicity of private testing companies for UK travellers some of which were not delivering on tests pre-purchased, and lack of follow up of day 2 and day 10 tests (pre 17 May) by UK government agencies which was most concerning to me. Recent news that many ‘covid bubble’ travellers into NZ from Australia did not get evidence of negative pre-departure tests checked cannot feature in arrangements to reduce/remove MIQ for those meeting requirements moving forward.

“One of my research project teams have been looking at the MIQ experiences of recent returnees and whilst overall experiences once in a MIQ facility are mostly positive and improved in the last year, the MIQ voucher system stands out as a major hurdle and inequitable barrier, presenting many challenges for people trying to get back to NZ.  Participants are keen to know that we will feed their contributions back to Government.”

Conflict of interest statement: “No conflicts to declare other than being a named investigator on three Covid-19 related Health Research Council/Ministry of Health projects.”

Dr Amanda Kvalsvig, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“The advice says very little about children, which is surprising as decisions made about children will be critical to the feasibility of maintaining our elimination strategy. Children are mentioned in terms of “the role they should play” in achieving population immunity through vaccination, but the Panel doesn’t comment on the implications of this statement.

“Vaccination of children aged 12-15 was approved by Medsafe in June, but there hasn’t been an announcement about whether this age group will be included in the national rollout, or whether younger children will be considered for vaccination when vaccine trial results for younger ages become available in the next few months. In Aotearoa children under 16 years make up about a fifth of the population. Not vaccinating them (or vaccinating them too late) would create a large hole in our collective immunity, given that not all adults will choose to or be able to be vaccinated. If children aren’t vaccinated when border restrictions are relaxed, the highly infectious new variants will make it very difficult if not impossible to prevent repeated community outbreaks and lockdowns. In effect, a decision to relax border restrictions before vaccinating children would equate to a decision to abandon elimination.

“A key point here is that the wellbeing of children must be centred in decisions that concern them: they’re not simply a means to an end. Their long-term wellbeing is at stake if the wrong decisions are made. When decision-makers consider when to reconnect New Zealand and accept a higher outbreak risk, they’ll need to show that they’ve engaged with the complex evidence about Covid-19 and children. There’ll need to be a comprehensive review that covers vaccination risks and benefits, the impacts of recurrent outbreaks on children’s access to school, the impacts on children who are at risk of serious infection, the impacts on health equity, and the highly concerning evidence now coming through about long-term effects of Covid-19 infection, including changes in the brain. The voices of children and their advocates must be heard in national-level decisions about Covid-19 strategy because once most of the adult population is vaccinated, children and young people will carry a substantial portion of this as-yet-unknown health risk.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Rawiri McKree Jansen (Ngati Raukawa, Ngati Hinerangi), Clinical Director, National Hauora Coalition, comments:

“The report is thorough, considered and appropriately recommends a cautious approach and a science-led approach.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Associate Professor Christian Schott, Tourism Management Group, Wellington School of Business and Government, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“Tourism operators need to know what the future holds. At least this advice gives some clarity about how the border reopening is likely to be conducted. There are obviously no timelines but at least operators know that it will be staged, and based on a number of criteria that they can use in their planning. I think under the circumstances, it’s the best we can wish for.

“Although further delays because of the Delta variant are painful, for many tourism operators a cautious approach is also in their interest, because they and their staff will be vulnerable if guests come and expose them to the risks of Covid-19.

“In the meantime, we need to get New Zealand tourism pointing in the direction we want it to – more sustainable and ideally regenerative in its approach. This is our window of opportunity and we should use this time wisely to consider the wellbeing of all of Aotearoa New Zealand, including its communities and flora and fauna, and put in place a regenerative approach to tourism before the borders reopen.”

No conflict of interest declared.