Tourists to arrive within weeks – Expert Reaction

New Zealand’s doors to the world will widen earlier than expected – from mid-April for Australia.

The country’s border is set to open for tourists and others from Australia without residence visas from midnight 12 April, and travellers from visa-waiver countries such as the US and UK will be welcomed from 2 May – with mandatory vaccination and a negative pre-departure test. This move brings forward the original timetable. No new date was set for the rest of the world to travel here.

The SMC asked experts to comment. 

Dr David Welch, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Computational Evolution and School of Computer Science, University of Auckland, comments:

“With borders reopening more widely and the consequent large rise in the number of travellers coming into the country, we can expect to see any new major variants that arise around the world to spread here fairly quickly. We will no longer have the luxury of time to watch and prepare as any new variants take hold overseas.

“We will need to increase and improve our local surveillance efforts, including genomic surveillance of variants circulating in the community.

“The current system worked well with tightly managed borders and the relatively small outbreaks we saw up to February 2022.

“Now with a much higher number of cases in the community and new cases arriving with travellers who are not going through MIQ, the genomic surveillance system is struggling to cope.

“A gold-standard genomic surveillance system would sequence most cases who were recent arrivals, most hospitalised cases, and a random sample of cases found in the community. To implement such a system will require coordination between testing labs, DHBs, and sequencing facilities and will need appropriate resourcing.

“Genomic surveillance is a key tool in understanding and controlling the threat posed by COVID. We should be making it a core part of our ongoing response.”

Conflict of interest statement: “My University has received funding from MBIE, HRC, and MoH for my work analysing and reporting on COVID genomics.”

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

“Closing the border was one the first and most important measures New Zealand took to stop the virus in 2020. For the last two years, border restrictions have been an essential part of our strategy.

“Fully reopening the border with no quarantine requirements is a huge milestone, but it doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. We can’t completely forget about Covid-19 and we still need a toolbox of sustainable measures to control transmission of the virus in the community.

“However, the fact that New Zealand now has comparable levels of infection as other countries means that border restrictions are no longer an effective tool for reducing community transmission. Even several hundred border cases per day likely wouldn’t make a big difference to the remainder of the current Omicron wave.

“Things may change if and when the next variant of concern comes along. This is why all international arrivals will need to be tested. This means we can keep a close eye on what is happening at the border, and we can detect and respond to a new variant as quickly as possible.”

Conflict of interest statement: Michael Plank is partly funded by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet for research on mathematical modelling of COVID-19.

Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, Immunologist, Associate Dean (Pacific), Head of University of Otago Wellington Pacific Office, and Senior Lecturer, Pathology & Molecular Medicine, University of Otago Wellington, comments:

“The definition for being fully vaccinated ideally should now include a booster shot, and for overseas travellers entering Aotearoa New Zealand who have yet to receive a booster injection, the opportunity to get boosted must be encouraged.

“Monitoring for new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus will be an important step moving forward, particularly with easing border restrictions. Even with our highly vaccinated population in Aotearoa New Zealand, it will be difficult to prevent likely rapid spread of a new SARS-CoV-2 variant if capable of evading the protection given by currently-available Covid-19 vaccines.

“In the meantime, Omicron continues to spread rapidly across Aotearoa New Zealand now with 19,542 new community cases reported today, 971 people in hospital, 22 in ICU/HDU and sadly 24 who have passed away – sympathies and condolences are respectfully extended to all family, whanau and kāinga at this time.

“The actual Covid-19 case numbers in Aotearoa New Zealand are likely to be much higher than those being reported, with case numbers growing around the country, peaking in different areas at different times. Sadly more deaths are likely over the next while, with a growing total of 141 to date.

“It is important to note that Pacific peoples currently make up 21% of COVID-19 cases, and 38% of all hospitalisations. Of all those currently eligible for a booster dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, 72.8% of the general population have received theirs, and for Māori and Pacific, boosters levels are at 59.3% and 59.7% respectively.

“Of those affected by the current outbreak in Aotearoa New Zealand, a total of 122,690 31% (nearly 1/3) were children, tamariki and tamaiki and rangatahi aged 19 years and under, with this group also making up 12% of all hospitalisations. Of those children aged 5-11 years, 53.5% of the general population have received their first Covid-19 vaccine dose, and for Māori and Pacific tamariki and tamaiki, vaccination levels for first doses are at 34.1% and 46.3% respectively.

“We still need to do everything we can to slow down the spread of Omicron while our children, tamariki and tamaiki get vaccinated, and for people to get their booster injections – please stay safe.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Arindam Basu, Associate Professor of Epidemiology, School of Health Sciences, University of Canterbury, comments:

“Earlier reopening of the borders will carry a risk of entry of new variants that are capable of evading immunity and believed to be more transmissible than even the Omicron variant, where the sub-variant BA.2 is about 1.4 times more contagious than the BA.1 sub-variant.

“In particular, the war in Ukraine and displacement of thousands of people, many of whom may be unvaccinated and open to infection, will amplify the emergence of new variants. This has implications for surveillance: for instance, we know now that BA.2 does not have ‘S-gene deletion’, and therefore is more challenging to distinguish genetically with PCR. There is also a high rate of asymptomatic infection and reinfection giving rise to the possibility of undetected community transmission. These issues will have implications for surveillance – meaning wastewater and genomic surveillance will be really important going forward.

“The message that definitely needs to be emphasised is that COVID-19 is not over yet, and masks, vaccination, QR scanning, and crowd avoidance remain as important as it has always been.”

No conflict of interest.