New Zealand has laid out a border reopening plan that will eventually allow vaccinated people to enjoy quarantine-free travel.
New Zealand has among the strictest border measures in the world but on Thursday, the country's prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced plans to open them in line with a ramped-up vaccination drive. The government will use the second half of 2021 to vaccinate as many people as possible and then take a phased approach to quarantine-free travel in 2022.
The island nation of 5 million residents has fully vaccinated just 17% of its population. That’s partly because it has no transmission. But as the country eyes a return to travel, it's taking a cautious approach to loosening border restrictions to prevent future flare-ups. Vaccination will be the first line of defence, followed by robust testing and vaccine checking systems at the border.
"Getting vaccinated is the number one thing everyone can do to be protected against COVID-19, help accelerate our economic recovery, reduce the risk of lockdowns, and safely allow New Zealand’s borders to begin re-opening next year," Ms Ardern said.
Zero-COVID approach to border reopening
The country closed its borders in March 2020 and put returning citizens into mandatory quarantine. In addition to strict lockdowns, New Zealand implemented a widespread testing and contact tracing program and took advantage of its remote geography to pursue a zero-COVID approach. Travel returned cautiously in the form of a travel bubble with Australia which eventually closed last month due to outbreaks there.
Ms Ardern said the government intends to follow the advice of public health experts to maintain this elimination approach. That means borders will open only when enough people are vaccinated. "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," Ms Ardern said.
From today, the country will reduce the time period between the first and second vaccine doses for New Zealanders, ensuring that everyone is at least partially vaccinated in the coming months. People who work at the border and those with underlying health issues will be given priority.
"Once enough people are vaccinated, we will be able to start the next step in the plan: a phased introduction of an individual risk-based approach to border settings in 2022," Ms Ardern said.
New Zealand's pathways to travel
The government will establish a system that will categorize countries based on their COVID-19 risk, dividing them into low-, medium-, and high-risk pathway groups. Each pathway will have its own testing and isolation requirements.
Vaccinated travelers who are coming from low-risk countries can enjoy quarantine-free travel. Those who have been in mid-risk countries will be subject to a combination of self-isolation and/or a reduced period of mandatory hotel quarantine.
Finally, the high-risk pathway will see travelers coming from high-risk countries subject to full mandatory hotel quarantine and testing, regardless of their vaccination status. To prepare for borders reopening, the government is doing a few things: developing a traveler health declaration system, investigating new technology for rapid arrival and pre-departure testing, piloting self-isolation arrangements, and expanding its contact tracing program.
Source: Lonely Planet