Expectations were high in migrant communities about announcements by Immigration Minister Chris Faafoi that was originally scheduled for today (12 August). However, earlier in the week it became clear that his presser would not happen. 

Instead, a nearly two-hour-long high-profile panel of experts drawn from science, health, government and business titled “Reconnecting New Zealand to the world” was live streamed. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addressed the panel and the audience.

Migrants who find themselves in limbo on account of any number of reasons ranging from pandemic-related border closures to an unempathetic immigration system found no answers to their burning questions.

They can perhaps take heart from Ms. Ardern’s acknowledgement that borders cannot remain closed for ever, even if the government is firm on its strategy of complete elimination – which she admitted had come at a cost. “We cannot keep border restrictions on forever, and to be absolutely clear we do not want to either,” she said.

Today’s panel discussion and the Prime Minister’s address was all about what New Zealand plans to do between now and the planned opening of borders in the first quarter of 2022. The panel discussion and the Prime Minister’s address revealed that considerable thought had gone into what will be attempted as a slew of trials get under way between now and the new year in what could be a four step strategy toward opening the borders.

Speakers on the panel said that there was no way in which we could vaccinate ourselves out of the pandemic admitting that worldwide experience was showing that vaccination was not working as well as it was expected to. So, vaccination would be one of many strategies required in any move to open borders. 

However, the view that borders could be opened in a careful, measured manner once a majority of the New Zealand population was vaccinated was expressed by a couple of speakers. The consensus was that “Covid is not going anywhere” and control measures will necessarily have to be dynamic and multi-modal. The panel was emphatically unanimous that vaccination was absolutely essential as the first personal line of defence against Covid-19.

The Prime Minister echoed this when she said border control alone would not help prevent outbreaks. Vaccination was necessary. She said border settings existing today were not “forever” but would change dynamically depending on health advice on dealing with the pandemic and new variants that might emerge.

The government is working across several agencies ranging from the Ministries of Health, Transport to Customs, other agencies, business and aviation to evolve protocols for safe travel, Ms. Ardern said, toward “safe and smart” re-opening of the borders, including pre-departure, in-flight and arrivals.

The period between and the planned opening of the borders early next year will see a number of trials. For instance, from October until December, a few hundred vaccinated workers who need to visit overseas for work will be in a pilot scheme where they will be able to travel and then self-isolate at home, instead of managed isolation.

 

For inward travel, a “modified isolation” system will be put in place with home-based isolation and shorter managed isolation periods depending on the countries from which the passengers have arrived. Passengers from countries deemed high risk (which currently includes India and Fiji) will still have to quarantine in managed isolation for 14 days. However, fully vaccinated travellers from “low risk” countries would be subject to various tests but could well able to skip isolation altogether.

The government’s goal is to move toward quarantine free travel to everyone who was vaccinated – but that depends on how well the trials will work.

Technology will progressively play a greater part in travel. Health and IT professionals are working together to develop technology and apps so that travellers can use technology to upload their vaccine status and other details pre-travel, which might become a requirement for all travel in future. This will be part of a “Traveller health Declaration System,” the Prime Minister said.

As regards the short-lived transtasman travel bubble, the Prime Minister said further advice was awaited and a decision could perhaps be expected by the end of next month at the earliest. Developments in New South Wales are certainly not encouraging toward any plan to open the borders safely at least as of now.

While the Prime Minister had recently said her government would make an announcement on the status of migrants affected by the pandemic in the short term, there is no indication of when that will happen – something that many had hoped would happen today.