By Craig McCulloch of RNZ
Scientists have shot down calls from New Zealanders overseas who want fewer border restrictions, warning such action right now would risk another Delta outbreak.
Nearly 16,000 people have signed a Grounded Kiwis petition calling for more managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities and alternative options, like self-isolation, for fully vaccinated travellers.
University of Melbourne epidemiologist Tony Blakely, who was born in New Zealand, acknowledged it was "not very nice" to be locked out of one's country, but it was an unfortunate reality.
"Yeah, it is tough. This is a one-in-100 year pandemic."
Blakely said Auckland's current Covid-19 outbreak was clear evidence of the danger of relaxing restrictions or opening up the border too early.
"The risk from bringing [too many] people back at the moment, until you've got your vaccine coverage higher, is real.
"It's a serious threat. You don't want it."
University of Otago epidemiologist professor Michael Baker agreed, saying the more people returning, the higher the risk of an outbreak and then lockdown.
"We need high vaccine coverage before we change our settings at the border," Baker said.
"The price of failure is so high now ... we know how incredibly disruptive, dangerous, and expensive a lockdown is."
Baker said, per capita, New Zealand already brought in more than twice the number of travellers as Australia.
"In the short-to-medium-term, it's hard to see there being more options for bringing more people across the border.
"Unfortunately, [New Zealanders abroad] are going to have to be patient."
Both professors advocated for purpose-built MIQ facilities as the optimal solution, but said border restrictions could ease once New Zealand's vaccination level was high enough.
"The good news is New Zealand, along with other countries, is really increasing vaccination coverage," Blakely said.
"The risk of bringing you back ... will be so much less in December, before Christmas."
For months, the number of people trying to come home has far outstripped the number of MIQ spots available - about 4000 rooms a fortnight. The problem has only worsened since the Delta outbreak with a temporary freeze imposed on any new spaces being allocated.
Travellers can apply for an emergency space, but Grounded Kiwis spokesperson Alexandra Birt said the threshold was too high.
Birt said it was unhelpful to tell New Zealanders "in really desperate situations" to be patient.
"A lot of these people have no jobs, they have no livelihoods, they're stuck overseas. There's no way they can just be patient and wait. They need to get back."
She said the group did not want to put New Zealand's safety at risk and did not believe that would occur with a "risk-based approach".
"This is not about abolishing MIQ or anything crazy like that," Birt said.
"It's about a risk-based approach - taking into account factors like where someone's returning from, if they're fully vaccinated, if they've had Covid already."
Birt said she understood the need for New Zealand to boost its vaccination rates, but noted the roll-out had been very slow to ramp up.
The government has been exploring the possibility of opening new MIQ facilities, notably in Rotorua, but has shown little appetite to do so at scale, citing workforce constraints and community push-back.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last month laid out plans to ease open the border next year once vaccination rates were high enough, including self-isolation for some low-risk travellers.
Ardern yesterday told reporters the timetable had not been derailed.
"If anything, of course, we're seeing our vaccination programme really speed up, and the quicker we can move through that, the more flexibility it does give."