New Zealand's war against Covid-19 and similar viruses will last for a long time.
The initial battle was to eliminate community transmission. We won that because we managed to cobble together a regime of lockdowns, closed borders, scrounging of testing kits and PPE, centralisation of disparate information systems, heroic health workers, amateurish contact-tracing, social distancing and community goodwill.
The second battle was to allow safe entry for returning Kiwis and special cases. We are winning that battle too. The voluntary compliance joke is over. Quarantine and managed isolation mean what they say. Mandatory testing actually happens. Initial hiccups are largely behind us. So far, nothing has escaped into the community.
Now we face a third battle. The challenge is to build a regime capable of safely receiving those who would contribute to our economy. We need tourists, students, workers, experts, investors, immigrants and business people. But they cannot come until we are ready for them.
There is currently a tension over when that will be. Some have cast this as an argument between overprotective mother-figures and reckless entrepreneurs. The mother-figures point out that an uncontrolled influx of international visitors would see a return to community transmission, lockdowns, illness and death. The entrepreneurs point out that without overseas visitors, fortress New Zealand would spiral into penury. Both are right.
But luckily those are not the only choices. In the long term we can have our cake and eat it too. It is true that we are not yet ready for both. The mother-figures rightly hold sway. That's because we've yet to create the necessary facilities and regime.
Our existing facilities for quarantine, managed isolation, and contact-tracing, cannot cope with a higher turnover.
Of course that has to change. The virus regime we need to cope with new visitors has been examined by experts. They include Professor Michael Baker, Sir Peter Gluckman, the Rt Hon Helen Clark, Rob Fyfe, Sir David Skegg and Professor Nick Wilson. A number of features seem necessary.
First, other countries need to be categorised for the risk their travellers would present. High on the list for early entry would be such countries as Pacific Island states, most of the Australian states, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Singapore. As our facilities expand, we would slowly progress to medium-risk countries and beyond.
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Secondly, testing should be a requirement immediately before departure from the country of origin. The testing would need to be carried out by a New Zealand representative located in that country or by an agency trusted by New Zealand. That test would be followed by more testing on arrival here, once for low-risk countries and twice for others.
Thirdly, a tourism travel bubble should be established – even though confined to an extremely select group of countries. This is particularly important for short-to-medium-term tourists. Holiday time is precious. No-one wants to spend it in a securely guarded hotel room.
Fourthly, a period of secure isolation is needed for most of the others. The period could be seven days for those from low-risk countries and 14 days for the rest.
Fifthly, we need better contact-tracing. The need is for increased capacity, reach and reliability. Optimum systems are still a work in progress. But it seems that the answer lies in Bluetooth smart cards, the Google/Apple app, or simply increasing the staff needed for manual tracing on a larger scale.
None of this will come cheap. In an economy already under stress, it is reasonable to ask where the money will come from. The capital cost of building or buying facilities will fall on the public. But, to a large extent, it can be user-pays. Reversing Donald Trump's approach, we can remove the wall and make them pay for it.
Overseas students can meet the cost of their own period in isolation. Travellers can pay for their own testing. Whatever approach is taken, the money will be well spent. The cost to the country will be nothing compared with the boost to our economy.
&bul; Robert Fisher QC is a former High Court Judge.