The government plans to build new Covid-19 isolation and quarantine facilities for unvaccinated arrivals as part of a future national quarantine service.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a five-step plan to ease border restrictions, starting with citizens and permanent residents traveling from Australia from February 27. Unvaccinated travelers will still need to go through managed isolation and quarantine.
“A basic quarantine capacity will be maintained which can be increased as needed, which will form the basis of a future national quarantine service,” Ardern said in Auckland on Thursday.
The new service will have a dedicated workforce and purpose-built facilities. Ministers would receive further guidance on whether to build a custom facility or adapt existing hotels for high-risk travellers.
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Vaccinated travelers will be required to present a negative Covid-19 test before departure in order to self-isolate in the community.
The MIQ slowed the spread of Covid-19 because it had stopped a high number of Covid-19 cases infecting people in the community, gave the contact tracing system more time to prepare, and allowed more people to be stimulated.
But Covid-19 modeller Professor Michael Plank, who has advised the government on vaccines, said it will become less relevant as community cases rise while the easing of restrictions in stages means cases will rise gradually “rather than a single big leap”.
“Once the Omicron epidemic really takes off, border cases will start to make less of a difference to the expected large number of community cases,” he said.
“The timeline for the first stage of reopening on February 27 seems reasonable. By then it is likely that the number of daily cases will be in the thousands and the vast majority of vaccinated adults will be eligible for their booster,” he said.
“The self-isolation and testing requirements for arrivals will mitigate the effect of border cases on community transmission, while removing the MIQ bottleneck and allowing us to monitor possible new variants.”
Dr Lesley Gray from the University of Otago said self-isolation arrangements must be rigorous to protect unvaccinated young children and those more vulnerable to the virus.
Up to 94% of the eligible population received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
More than 200,000 Kiwis and critical workers and 3,600 people who have had Covid-19 have gone through managed isolation and quarantine.
Epidemiologists have been calling for more than a year for bespoke facilities better suited to contain the virus after it leaked from hotels.
From March 13, citizens and permanent residents traveling from outside Australia will be able to skip the MIQ, followed by those holding a visa in April and those from visa-exempt countries – such as Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom.