New Zealand’s borders controls are getting even stricter, with arrivals from virtually all countries soon needing a negative Covid test before boarding a plane here.
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins on Tuesday gave Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield new powers, which means he can now easily require negative tests for arrivals from all countries apart from Australia, some Pacific Island nations, and Antarctica.
It comes as Covid-19 surges around the world, in sharp contrast to New Zealand, where there is no current community transmission. Both the United States and the United Kingdom are experiencing unprecedented peaks in Covid-19, and nearly 2 million people have now died from the virus globally.
Bloomfield will soon expand the list of countries from which passengers will need to return a negative test before being allowed to return to New Zealand. Tests need to be taken within 72 hours of flying to New Zealand.
It is understood new countries could be added to the list as soon as next week.
People arriving in New Zealand would also need an extra test within 24 hours of landing.
The rules were previously introduced for those arriving from the United Kingdom and United States. Those come into force on Friday.
From January 29, those who arrived without evidence of a negative test - for those countries from where one is required - could see returnees stung with a fine of up to $1000.
“Given the high rates of infection in many countries and evidence of the global spread of more transmissible variants, it’s clear that most global air routes will be of critical concern for the foreseeable future, and we must respond strongly to the evolving situation,” Hipkins said.
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Children aged under two would be exempt from pre-departure testing. There were some other exceptions, such as those who could not have a test for medical reasons.
“We have also decided that in rare cases, the requirement of a test 72 hours in advance may be extended to 96 hours if a person’s flight has been delayed or cancelled, or test results haven’t been received in time,” Hipkins said.
“In this situation, the flight must be rescheduled or rebooked to depart within 24 hours.
“It’s really important to remember that all travellers, including anyone exempted from the pre-departure testing requirement, will still be required to complete the 14 days mandatory isolation which applies to all new arrivals into New Zealand.”
Epidemiologist Michael Baker said pre-flight quarantines and testing should be considered to limit the number of infections coming into New Zealand.
“The goal is not to test lots more people, it’s to turn down the tap. The goal is no one turning up in New Zealand who is infected,” he said.
A temporary suspension of travel from high-risk countries such as the UK and the US was “an option New Zealand has to look at”, though Baker did not believe a full border closure was necessary yet.
There was also an argument that New Zealand should reduce the number of spaces in managed isolation each month in order to reduce risk and free up space in the event of a community outbreak.
Australia recent halved its managed isolation capacity to 10,000 people a month, less than the 12,000 spaces available in New Zealand, despite a far larger population.
“All of us feel really conflicted about how this could affect our fellows New Zealanders wanting to return home from overseas. It’s about balancing their needs and freedoms against the risk of an outbreak, which would be catastrophic for New Zealand,” he said.
He also wanted the government to look into bringing forward vaccinations for border workers and flight crews.