One of the unintended outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic is that New Zealand, protected by its closed border, is becoming isolated from the reality of the rest of the world.
An example is Chris Hipkins's recent announcement of the requirement to get a negative PCR test within 72 hours of flying to New Zealand from the United Kingdom (or the United States).
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This policy is in response to the new Covid variant, which is now the predominant strain infecting Britons, especially in the south of England.
I am currently in the UK and am scheduled to fly back to New Zealand and enter 14-day mandatory isolation at the end of this month. As soon as I read about the new requirement – which comes into effect on 15 January – I contacted providers to secure a PCR test, and it became apparent this policy is not as simple to comply with as people might think.
The requirement is predominantly aimed at travellers from the UK, who are likely to be flying through either Qatar or Dubai and will collectively face challenges with compliance due to the limited flight connection to New Zealand.
Some readers will say it's my own fault – I chose to leave New Zealand during a pandemic – and they would be right. I had to come to the UK to be with my daughter, who was suffering from a health crisis and needed me there with her.
I had a choice, to either remain behind our safety barrier and cross my fingers, or to go to my daughter. I think I did what any dad would do. I know I am not alone in having to travel to support and comfort a loved one during this crisis.
My travel arrangements are fairly standard so can serve as a useful example.
My flight to New Zealand departs at 8.20pm on January 22, and I have to get a test within 72 hours of that scheduled departure time, i.e. no earlier than 8.20pm on January 19.
Practically speaking, it is impossible to get a test before testing centres open the following day, so I have booked a test at 7.30am on January 20, the first appointment of the day and just 61 hours before my flight. I also have to account for check-in being four hours before flight departure time.
All this means that I will need to show certification of a negative PCR test to check-in staff – but I will have only 58 hours between the time of the test and the time of check-in to receive the result.
Now for the problem. While test results may be returned in as little as 48 hours, they are only guaranteed to be returned in 72 hours after the test – in other words, after my flight has departed.
In making the 72-hour specification, Chris Hipkins mistakenly stated that transit passengers through Dubai needed to secure a negative test within 96 hours of departure – so this appears, on its face, to be merely a tighter testing period.
Actually, he is wrong, and passengers do not need to get a test if they are only transiting through Dubai – this requirement is only applicable to UAE residents or visitors to the UAE. The Minister wanted to paint this as a cost Kiwis already needed to bear, but the new 72-hour requirement represents an additional cost.
Nevertheless, the 96-hour window is much more sensible for test results. Seventy-two hours may work for short-haul but is totally impractical for long-haul travel.
However, it allows Minister Hipkins to say that New Zealand has the strictest protocols in the world – even though from an infection protection and transmission standpoint, 72 hours offers very little protection over 96 hours, and all new arrivals will be going into managed isolation anyway.
In my case, to ensure I have a valid test result for the initial flight, I have booked a test at 4pm on January 19 – 76 hours before my flight is due to depart but 72 hours before check-in – as well as my originally booked test at 7.30am on January 20. My hope is that these two tests will yield at least one valid certificate which will enable me to board the flight.
I'm lucky that I can afford to spend more to get on the plane, because each test costs £205 ($388), and up to £1550 ($2932) for a family of four, on top of the costs of managed isolation in New Zealand.
I understand the need to keep the border secure, but I do not think our citizenry can support a policy which puts such additional stress and potentially unaffordable cost on people who may already be suffering from lost employment or family crisis and just want to get home.
The UAE has set up a simple testing programme for its citizens through the pharmacy chain Boots. Why can't we do the same overseas, to keep costs down for New Zealand families under stress? Why put a prohibitive timetable on the pre-flight testing?
What if Kiwis get the test within 72 hours, in good faith and at considerable cost, but results are not delivered in time? Will they be denied the right to board and be stranded at the airport? Will they have to bear the cost of a new flight, and lose their managed isolation ticket?
In short, did no one in the Ministry of Health sense-check this policy for cost and practicality?
My plea to our policymakers is this: Let's not lose our humanity because of our fear. Make sure we don't pile unnecessary pressure on our fellow Kiwis. A small adjustment of the testing window, to 96 hours, would make all the difference.
Please, Minister Hipkins, rethink this.
• Entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrew Barnes is the innovator behind the 4 Day Week; and the founder of Perpetual Guardian, among other entities.