Govt resets Covid-19 approach, announcing steps to reopen NZ – Expert Reaction

A speedup of the Covid-19 vaccination rollout and a border opening pilot trial are coming this year, as part of the government’s plan to reopen the borders.

All over-16s will be eligible for the jab from September, but the time between doses will be extended from three to six weeks. Some fully vaccinated workers will be able to self-isolate at home after returning from overseas, in a pilot scheme starting in October. Quarantine-free travel is expected to be opened up for all vaccinated travellers coming from countries deemed low-risk starting from the first quarter of 2022.

See here for expert comments on the science advice this announcement was based off.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the announcements. 

Professor Nick Wilson, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, comments:

“There are many excellent ideas in the Government plans announced today – with these being informed by high quality scientific thinking in the Skegg report released yesterday. It is particularly good to expand the time between doses to six weeks as that will be better for the immunity of individuals – and will allow for more people to have at least one dose before any future outbreaks. Plans to have mandatory QR scanning in high risk settings and expanded mask use at higher Alert Levels are very welcome (and what has been argued for by experts for some time).

“But there are still unfortunate gaps in the national response that are not in the government’s plans. For example, there should now be urgent prioritisation of all essential workers for vaccination in Groups 3 and 4 (ie, supermarket workers, truck drivers, bus drivers, etc). The lack of vaccination of such workers has been one of the reasons that Sydney is currently struggling with its Covid-19 outbreak. NZ should also be moving much faster on vaccinating 12-15 year olds as this can be done very efficiently in the school setting.

“While the NZ Government is very good at prioritising protecting harm to health from the Covid-19 pandemic – it also needs to look at the wider social and economic issues as well. That is, it needs to commission integrated health and economic modelling that takes into account the adverse social and economic impacts of lockdowns – as some of us have recently published in the Australian context. This modelling work also shows that elimination is the best strategy from a health and an economic perspective.

“All things considered however, NZ continues to be a world leader with its elimination strategy and in taking a scientifically-informed approach to adjusting the settings to its tight border controls.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Julia Albrecht, Department of Tourism, University of Otago, comments:

What positives will the tourism sector take away from this morning’s announcements?

“The key message was certainly that plans to re-open are becoming more specific. The October start date for trials for different border management processes for some groups was perhaps earlier than what many have expected. That said, these trials will apply to small numbers only and will, of course, occur under highly restricted circumstances. Nevertheless, it appears as though there is light at the end of the tunnel, but we don’t know how much longer we have to go.”

When should we expect the return of international visitors?

“We don’t know this. We may see small but hopefully increasing numbers of international visitors from selected countries in the first half of next year. Which countries may be offered that privilege will depend on their situation with regard to Covid-19.”

How attractive will NZ be for tourists?

“In terms of the destination offer itself we remain very attractive. I will, in fact, be interesting to see whether our largely Covid-free status makes us more appealing. But we need to wait and see how arduous the border processes will be, and also what costs may be associated with them. For example, the idea of a short period in MIQ has been mentioned. Presumably, if international visitors were to be subjected to such a measure, they would need to pay for MIQ.”

What more does the tourism sector need from the Government in terms of detail in the reopening plan?

“Planning security, and especially dates. Re-opening the sector to international visitors will require businesses to plan advance in terms of the product range that will be offered, capacities, and (importantly) staffing. But we also know that there is no such planning security at this stage, and the Australia bubble has shown that travel arrangements may be in flux for a while now.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Dougal Sutherland, Clinical Psychologist, Victoria University of Wellington and Umbrella Wellbeing, comments:

“The Government’s newly announced COVID reopening plan could provide the incentive many need to (re)engage with the team of 5 million. Over the past few months with COVID appearing to be under control, or at least held at bay in New Zealand, many of us have slipped into a state of complacency. We scan occasionally if at all, we may or may not sign-up to get vaccinated.

“The Government plan could provide a useful “carrot” to help us change these behaviours. There are now clear advantages to be gained, both individually and as a country, if we follow health advice and get our jab, keep scanning, and mask-up. Typically humans respond better if they are rewarded for doing something rather than punished for doing the opposite.

“The new government plan may provide many with a hope and focus for the future, now that we have something to head towards (e.g., opening borders, isolating at home) rather than simply having to run away and hide from the virus.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor Michael Plank, Te Pūnaha Matatini and University of Canterbury, comments:

“It’s fantastic news that everyone over 16 will soon be eligible to book their vaccinations. As the rollout accelerates, this will let us get first doses to as many people as possible. We heard yesterday that, if the Delta variant of COVID-19 finds its way into the community, the government will likely impose a snap level 4 lockdown. This is a wise stance given how quickly Delta can spread. Expanding vaccine coverage into younger age groups, who are more likely to spreads the virus, will make it easier to control an outbreak if we do get one. This could shorten the lockdown or even avoid it altogether.

“Looking ahead, the roadmap looks like a sensible plan for gradually navigating our way towards a more open border, once the vaccine rollout is complete. The aim is to allow international travel to gradually resume, while minimising the number of cases entering the community and staying committed to stamping out outbreaks that will inevitably occur. This is consistent with the expert advice from Professor Skegg’s committee. The challenges of managing COVID-19 outbreaks in the community will be formidable and should not be underestimated. But sticking with the “stamp it out” approach keeps our options open and prioritises the health of at-risk groups.

“A crucial question is whether border relaxation will happen before we have vaccinated children under 16. If it does, we will almost certainly see outbreaks spreading through schools. Whether to vaccinate children is a complex question and needs a careful analysis of risks and benefits. This should take into account the short and long term health impacts of infection, as well as the disruptions of school closures and absences, that will occur if we do not allow children to be vaccinated.

“The pilot scheme for vaccinated New Zealanders to travel overseas and then self-isolate at home is a sensible move. Importantly, this will only be for a few hundred people initially so the risk it poses is low. But it is important to design and test systems like this so that know what works when the time comes for a wider border reopening.”

No conflict of interest declared.

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

“Until we see the detail of how home self-isolation will work and what the ‘checks and balances’ will be – both for home self-isolation and risk pathways for vaccinated Kiwis – it is difficult to comment in detail on the approaches. However, that the Government is signalling these developments is good news for those Kiwis for whom travel overseas is required. The possibility of MIQ free travel in 2022 is welcome, so long as returning Kiwis can be adequately screened for negative pre- and post-departure Covid tests to ensure the protection of the many New Zealanders who do not or cannot travel overseas and those who are our most vulnerable to severe illness if they contract Covid-19.”

No conflict of interest declared.