A poll has shown strong support for keeping the borders closed until at least 90 per cent of people are vaccinated as the issue heated up and Sir John Key entered the debate, calling for a date to be set.
The polling by Talbot Mills Research (formerly UMR) showed almost two thirds of people did not believe the borders should be relaxed until New Zealand hit at least a 90 per cent vaccination rate.
It had much higher support than the option of opening the borders after everybody had been given a reasonable chance to get vaccinated, regardless of the overall rate - an option favoured by 26 per cent of people.
Support for the 90 per cent plus threshold was particularly high among Labour and Green supporters (70–72 per cent support) – but about 60 per cent of National and Act supporters also favoured it.
The Government has thus far refused to set a specific threshold or date at which it would ease border restrictions but has committed to trialling measures such as home isolation this year, as part of its road map.
The poll of 1050 people aged 18 and over was taken from August 31 to September 6 – the third week of the lockdowns sparked by the Delta outbreak. It has a margin of error of +/- 3.1 per cent,
The NZ Herald has joined with Talbot Mills Research for polling on vaccinations as part of the 90% Project, to help track public sentiment over the coming months.
Talbot Mills said while support for the more cautious approach at the borders was very high, the debate around the borders was still at an early stage of the "big calls" that needed to be made later this year or next year.
Although the poll showed caution about opening the borders before 90 per cent, there was some support for easing the path of vaccinated travellers from safe countries earlier than that - other than the standard 14 days in MIQ.
Sixty-two per cent supported shorter quarantine combined with testing for vaccinated travellers from safe countries, while 56 per cent supported vaccinated New Zealanders being able to quarantine at home rather than in MIQ. There was less enthusiasm, but still about 50 per cent support, for allowing businesses to organise their own isolation for workers.
Yesterday, former prime minister Sir John Key waded into the debate in an opinion piece calling for the Government to set a date for the borders to reopen "and soon" after people had had a fair chance to get vaccinated.
Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins hit back at Key's description of New Zealand as a "smug hermit kingdom" but would not say what would trigger either the end of the use of lockdowns, or the reopening of the border.
Hipkins said even if the vaccination rate hit 90 per cent, it might not be enough if some demographics were not well covered.
The Government is working on a new plan for a highly vaccinated population which is expected in the next few weeks.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has confirmed trials of measures such as home isolation will go ahead this year, as planned in the roadmap for reopening.
This week, National is set to release its plan for the vaccination rollout and reopening, including the target at which it believed borders could reopen.
Act leader David Seymour said he believed a date should be given at which the borders would reopen and people could then make their own choices on whether to get vaccinated before then.
"You need the incentive on the individual. If you say 'we are going to open, and the risk is greater that you will get Covid and suffer ill-effects' then it will get more people going for vaccinations.
Te Pūnaha Matatini researcher Professor Shaun Hendy said it was reassuring people were willing to stay the course given uncertainty around the effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing transmission.
"I think that's probably the best approach given how easy it is for Delta to overwhelm health systems."
He said it was possible patience could wane as more people were vaccinated and wanted to see the benefits of it.
"That's human nature. The conversation will shift, no doubt. But we are in a position that allows us to see what happens in other parts of the world."
He said the experience of other countries opening up would have an impact on public attitudes. Countries such as Denmark, Norway and the United Kingdom removing restrictions, and if their cases did not balloon it could affect views in New Zealand.
Hendy said data from overseas in the next months would be used to update the current modelling – and could offer more certainty than the current data was able to provide.
The polling for September also showed the impact the Delta outbreak had on people's attitudes to vaccinations – including a significant spike in those willing to be vaccinated compared to before the outbreak.
The numbers who said they were willing or already vaccinated climbed from 80-82 per cent in the three months prior to 89 per cent in September – just short of the 90 per cent that director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield described as "mission critical".
The poll showed hesitancy had dropped from 16 per cent to 10 per cent - those who said they probably or definitely would not get vaccinated.
Only 5 per cent were now saying they would definitely not get a vaccination – down from 7 per cent in June.
The September results showed the main reason for vaccine reluctance was concerns about side effects (35 per cent). Fifteen per cent said it was because they did not trust it or were anti-vaccination. For 15 per cent it was apathy: they were too lazy, or did not think they needed to.
Nine per cent cited health conditions.
If that willingness translates into injections, the country could achieve the 90 per cent plus rate Bloomfield has described as "mission critical".
As of Sunday, 76 per cent of those eligible had at least one dose - about two-thirds of the whole population. Children under 12 cannot get vaccinated yet.
Forty-one per cent were now fully vaccinated – one third of the entire population.
However, after the lockdown boom the numbers turning up for their first dose was dropping.
Asked how to reach the extra 10-20 per cent to get to over 90 per cent, Ardern said vaccination programmes around the country were using innovative ways to reach people and the Government's role was to support them in doing it.