Experts have welcomed the removal of self-isolation for vaccinated people entering New Zealand as a practical and sensible move amid dropping border cases – but have called for widening the term "fully vaccinated" to include being boosted.
The Government today announced self-isolation requirements for vaccinated Kiwi returnees would be lifted from 11.59pm on Wednesday for those returning from Australia. Previously, these travellers would have needed to self-isolate for seven days.
In addition, vaccinated New Zealanders from anywhere in the world will be able to return from Friday after the Government brought forward step 2 of its five-step border reopening plan. These travellers could previously only arrive, with self-isolation, from March 13.
In a statement, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said border cases had decreased over the last month – both in numbers and as a proportion of arriving travellers. The seven-day average for border cases at the weekend was 9.4, compared with a seven-day average of around 6700 for cases in the community.
University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker says the move to drop the self-isolation requirements for vaccinated people entering New Zealand is sensible – but the term fully vaccinated should include being "boosted".
"We've been very slow to change that for the vaccine pass. The vaccine pass is almost giving a false sense of security. This would be time to fix the definition for people coming into New Zealand to being boosted as well."
University of Auckland public health Associate Professor Collin Tukuitonga said the border move was practical and there was logical public health evidence to support it – but also that the term fully vaccinated should include being boosted.
"In my mind, fully vaxxed is not two doses. In my mind, fully vaxxed from Omicron must include the booster. Until you have the booster, you're not fully vaxxed," he said, and encouraged anyone who hadn't had their booster dose to get it.
However, Tukuitonga was concerned how the self-isolation changes, alongside increasing case numbers, would impact vulnerable groups.
"That's the concern - with increasing numbers and relaxation of these measures that again the vulnerable people that are going to bear the brunt of this will be Māori and Pasifika people.
"The idea of isolation and quarantine is you take out of circulation those people who present the risk of spreading the virus. When you relax those isolation requirements, essentially, you're allowing everyone to mix and mingle - and the most vulnerable people are yet again going to suffer the consequences."
University of Canterbury Professor Michael Plank said the decision was appropriate as the outbreak had changed rapidly in recent weeks.
"Even two weeks ago, it would have been potentially a risky move to let large numbers of cases come in because that could've really accelerated the outbreak," Plank said.
"Now we are at a stage where we are seeing much larger number of cases and having a few hundred cases at the border does have less of an impact relatively. I wouldn't expect it to have a significant effect on the peak of the Omicron wave."
Hipkins said MIQ would remain for unvaccinated New Zealanders, refugees and some community cases as needed and he would have more to say on the matter in coming weeks.
Travellers would still be required to have a negative pre-departure test and undertake two rapid antigen tests on arrival and at day 5.6. Anyone who returned a positive result would be required to report it and isolate for the same period as a community case.
Returnees were also asked to follow up their positive RATs with a PCR test so public health officials could run whole genome sequencing to determine the variant and keep tabs on any emerging variants.
Baker said it was important there was a system in place that ensured people who were required to undergo RATs as a condition of entry into New Zealand adhered to putting their results into the system.
"It would be very easy for people to forget or not comply or falsify it," Baker said.
"I think just thinking through the whole system for ensuring adherence, that was my other big question about it. They'll say [it's] 'a high trust environment'; that just means it's an opportunity to be ingenious."
There were 14,633 new community cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand today and 344 people in hospital, including five in intensive care. At the border, 24 Covid-19 cases were detected.
Seventeen people who were at the protest at Parliament have tested positive for Covid-19.
However, the ministry said due to reluctance by protesters to get a Covid-19 test, the true number of cases linked to the protest was likely to be much higher.