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A move to push back the reopening of New Zealand’s borders has been labelled “heartbreaking” by airline reps, “soul-crushing” by tourism and left Kiwis abroad “devastated”.
Today Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced the reopening would be delayed until the end of February, instead of mid-January.
This is among a raft of new changes, including pulling forward the date Kiwis can get boosters, in a bid to reduce the impact of the Omicron variant which is spreading overseas.
Board of Airlines Representatives of New Zealand (Barnz), executive director
Justin Tighe-Umbers said hundreds of people that had booked to come home from Australia from mid-January now face rolling the dice to try get an MIQ room.
“Barnz is disappointed in the decision to delay opening the border, but understands why it has been taken. Apart from the effect on families and people who haven’t been able to see each other for nearly two years, it’s a huge blow to the tourism sector.”
Tighe-Umbers said there needs to be an open mind if overseas experience shows that New Zealand’s health system is unlikely to be put under pressure by the new variant.
“Despite record cases New South Wales is continuing with plans to open up its border from Tuesday. Along with Victoria, it has scrapped its requirement for international arrivals to self-isolate for 72 hours.
“Travel restrictions are not a long-term solution to control Covid variants.”
Grounded Kiwis spokeswoman Alexandra Birt told the Herald it was particularly tough for people who were in low-risk areas.
Birt said many people had been trying to get back for months but stopped entering the “lottery system” when they could book flights home without needing to go through MIQ.
“For a lot of people [in Australia] they’ve lost jobs, they’re waiting to start new jobs [in New Zealand].”
She said it was frustrating that New Zealand was using the border as a blunt measurement instead of taking into account vaccination levels, whether Omicron was in the region or the rate of Covid-19.
Birt believed New Zealand was the only country still preventing citizens from returning home.
During the press conference, Hipkins said they had tried to provide certainty and he was “sorry” not to meet that deadline but the reality is Covid continued to throw up more challenges for the Government.
As for expanding MIQ, Hipkins said they were still intending to have home MIQ as the default setting. That had been delayed by six weeks but it’s still the plan.
University of Canterbury professor Michael Plank said the package of measures announced today will help protect New Zealanders’ health from the threat posed by the Omicron variant of Covid-19.
“We do know that it can spread extraordinarily fast and that two doses of the vaccine, although still much better than nothing, is likely to be less effective for Omicron than for Delta. Increasing evidence suggests that a third dose of the vaccine restores immunity to a much higher level.”
Plank said New South Wales is currently having a very rapid Omicron outbreak and the variant is also spreading in several other Australian states.
“Going ahead with border reopening plans in January, even with the home isolation scheme, would mean that Omicron would almost certainly get into the New Zealand community within weeks if not days.”
He said delaying reopening plans to the end of February gives us a chance to keep Omicron out until the majority of adults have received their third dose of the vaccine.
“Increasing the MIQ stay to 10 days and shortening the pre-departure test period from 72 to 48 hours are sensible ways to reduce the risk of the highly transmissible Omicron variant leaking out of MIQ.”
Tourism Export Council of New Zealand chief executive Lynda Keene said it was heart-breaking to learn that the thousands of Kiwis in Australia who have booked a ticket to return home (NZ) from January 17, 2022,now have to put their lives on hold yet again.
“One can assume the thousands of Kiwis from around the rest of the world will also have their travel plans disrupted from 14 February 2022. What an emotional rollercoaster again that will be crushing the souls of Kiwis and their loved ones here in NZ.”
Keene said the inability of the Government to provide actual dates was cruel and meant no traveller has a clue when they can come back.
“The poor staff at Air NZ and Jetstar who also thought they could approach the next few days looking forward to Christmas now having to work even more hours to rebook or cancel tickets with many distressed travellers.”
She urged the Government to provide more certainty and said the mental stress on business owners is plunging people into depression.
“What is the use of the country busting a gut to get over 90 per cent fully vaccinated if we don’t even give the vaccine a chance to do its job? Has the Government lost its confidence in backing itself and its people. It seems yes.”
For those who had booked flights from Australia to come home from January 16, Hipkins said they would work closely with airlines and MIQ about a new release date. They would make sure that people in Australia could get access to that.
Those who had a critical need to get back could still apply for it, he said, in the most recent lobby release there were 500 rooms not taken so demand had slowed
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