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Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has today revealed New Zealand would revert to the alert level system if a new vaccine-resistant variant overwhelmed the country and the traffic light framework couldn't contain it.
Speaking to The AM Show, Hipkins said while the Government was absolutely committed to the traffic light system, a back-up plan would be reinstating the alert level system which is set to be dismantled next week.
The Government would have to revert to the alert level plan if it had a variant of the virus that was resistant to the vaccine, he said.
It was a possibility, but it's not what they thought would happen, he added.
Defending the speed at which the traffic light legislation was rushed through, he said he would much prefer to put things through a usual parliamentary process. It was not ideal, but they had put safeguards in place.
Hipkins told TVNZ Breakfast that in a pandemic they had to make decisions and in an ideal world he would like to have run it through select committee for six months.
While they could have slowed the process down that would have meant Auckland would have waited longer to get out of restrictions as well as the rest of the country and he didn't want people to wait longer than need to.
However, there were extra safeguards in place, he said.
Every order that was made under the new bill would get scrutinised and had to be periodically renewed by Parliament.
Responding to criticism over vaccine passports meaning more bureaucracy for business owners, he said businesses were keen to reopen and this was the way they get to open.
Having vaccine requirements to be in certain places was the way to keep themselves and customers safer, he said.
He acknowledged it will be an extra cost on business, but likened it to the hospitality industry having to check ID to ensure people are over 18.
Australians expected to flock to NZ
Hipkins also said tens of thousands of people would be coming across the border each week when it reopened to Australia in January.
He said it was difficult to model how many positive cases would come into New Zealand from international travellers.
"We have to accept the reality that the risk of Covid-19 around international travel is going to be progressively increasing over the next three to four months."
It was possible Australia would see surges as it reopened its borders internally, but it was also possible it wouldn't.
He said the fact they were double vaccinated didn't mean they couldn't be carrying Covid-19.
"You can't just isolate Australia. If you look at our case numbers across the border about 50 fully-vaccinated people in the last couple of months have come in and tested positive for Covid-19 on arrival."
Hipkins said the 5000-odd cases New Zealand was currently dealing with stemmed from one case from New Zealand.
While the country was opening up they didn't want a whole lot of extra risk all at the same time. He said they were trying to "step through" the easing of restrictions with Auckland reopening next week and the border lifting a week later.
The Government had been looking at other highly vaccinated countries and some were still experiencing a lot of difficulty at the moment. "We want to try and do this in a way that's sustainable."
However, a lot could happen in the first quarter of next year and they had some "positive prospects" on the horizon.
Potentially having 5 to 11-year-olds vaccinated early next year, as well as booster shots being rolled out from next week would add to the layer of protections and the risk profile would continue to evolve, he said.
Phased return home
The Government's decision to finally set the dates when fully vaccinated Kiwis can fly home from overseas without entering MIQ was us much about a "groaning" administrative system as it was health risk, says one expert.
From January 17, fully vaccinated New Zealanders can travel from Australia without traversing MIQ, Hipkins announced at yesterday's 1pm Beehive briefing.
Fully vaccinated Kiwis from all other countries can arrive and bypass MIQ as of February 14.
These full vaccinated international arrivals will still need to self-isolate for seven days at home in New Zealand, register a negative Covid-19 test on arrival and another before entering the community.
And all fully vaccinated foreign nationals can start arriving from April 30. But Hipkins said that date might change, or the overseas influx could be tailored by visa category.
Hipkins said the plan balanced the demands of multiple groups with the need to prevent a Covid-19 surge.
But the complexity and challenge of managing pandemic prevention systems explained much of the decision, public health expert Professor Michael Baker said.
"It's a mixture of a genuine desire to protect New Zealand from the ravages of the pandemic, and an element of administrative capacity."
It was logistically impossible to open up New Zealand before Christmas, Baker said, with recent challenges showing multiple systems under strain.
He said the pandemic prevention systems were "groaning" with the volume of demands, including on MIQ and vaccine passes.
"We are in an age where we expect everything to work seamlessly," Baker added. "We are moving into a different strategy now, and what we call a tight suppression approach."
Baker said proposed guidelines for overseas arrivals were more rigorous than for people in locked-down Auckland, who will be able to travel nationwide from December 15.
All overseas arrivals not required to go into MIQ will need a negative pre-departure test, proof of full vaccination, and passenger declaration about travel history.
From next month, Indonesia, Fiji, India, Pakistan and Brazil will lose the ignominy of being deemed "very high-risk" countries.
Factors including new case numbers, reliability of testing systems, and proportion of tests returning positive results determined if a country fell into the very high-risk group.
Cases in Europe have surged in the past fortnight but elsewhere the global situation was often more promising. In Japan, new research suggested Delta drove itself towards extinction after several mutations.
But Baker said nobody here should pin hopes on a similar scenario.
"That would probably convert me into having a belief in a higher power," he said when asked about chances of the Delta variant self-destructing in New Zealand anytime soon.
It was more likely the virus would keep circulating in New Zealand, but high vaccination rates and widespread face mask use could greatly mitigate its spread, he said.
Malcolm Pacific Immigration chief executive and director David Cooper said reaction from his colleagues and clients to the border announcement was largely positive.
"At least now, we have something to work towards."
Cooper told the Herald many Kiwis had previously been eager to fly home but reluctant to take up MIQ places.
He said it was still to be seen how self-isolation would work, and what sorts of accommodation would be regarded as adequate for self-isolation.
Opposition parties blasted the three-step travel announcement.
"This timetable to open New Zealand to the world is truly pathetic," National's Covid-19 response spokesman Chris Bishop said.
He said Hipkins had already admitted no fully vaccinated travellers from Australia for months tested positive for Covid, so there was no reason the transtasman bubble should not reopen now.
Act said Labour was "the Grinch who stole Christmas for no reason", depriving Kiwis overseas of a chance to come home.
"Where is the cost-benefit analysis for closing the border to Australia until next year?" party leader David Seymour said.
"What is the justification for knee-capping the tourism industry for another four months?"
Hospitality New Zealand chief executive Julie White was unimpressed with the three-step plan.
She said more hospitality firms will collapse if foreign nationals are barred until April 30.
"I'm completely baffled as to why our borders can't be opened to tested and vaccinated people from safe countries well before then," White said.
Flight Centre managing director David Coombes said several problems with the announcement dampened his excitement.
"We do question why this action needs to wait until 2022, given the desperation of many families to reunite with their loved ones ahead of Christmas."
Coombes said a week's isolation was excessive for fully vaccinated visitors who were repeatedly tested for Covid.
"We sincerely hope today's announcement is the worst-case scenario and welcome all conversations from the government to land on a sooner date with simpler, more logical safety measures. "
The country's biggest airline was more upbeat.
"Today's announcement signals the beginning of the return to international travel," Air New Zealand executive Leanne Geraghty said.
"This is incredibly exciting news for New Zealanders at home and overseas and we can't wait to welcome our customers back on board."
She said it would have been desirable to reunite people before Christmas, but at least customers now had confidence to plan holidays into the New Year.