American scientists and builders returning from a dark winter in Antarctica will be exempt from quarantining when they return through New Zealand this week.
The Ministry of Health says Antarctica, which is the world's only coronavirus-free continent, offers just a "negligible" chance that returning visitors through Christchurch – New Zealand's gateway to the white continent - could have the virus.
United States' Antarctic Programme personnel returning this week have been isolated in a Scott Base/McMurdo Station Antarctic bubble since early May.
Medical Officer of Health and Director of Public Health, Dr Caroline McElnay has confirmed they pose a "negligible Covid-19 public health risk to New Zealand".
"On this basis, people arriving on these flights have been exempted from the requirement to enter into MIQ (managed isolation and quarantine)," a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Mfat) told the Herald.
"The US Antarctic Programme's intention is for personnel to return to the US on the first available flight out."
One New Zealander who works for the US programme will be allowed to return to their home.
"The approach to managing the arrival of people returning from Antarctica in the future will actively consider any health risks present at that time," the Mfat spokeswoman added.
"Antarctica is the only continent that is Covid-19 free and there is a shared commitment between Antarctic programmes for this to be maintained."
Christchurch is the world's main gateway to Antarctica, with countries like the United States, Italy, and South Korea using it as a transit base.
There had been concerns the city could lose its lucrative $200 million business if scientists, researchers, and others due to work in Antarctica, were scared off by overly-stringent coronavirus quarantining.
City business sources spoken to by the Herald feared nations could consider other major gateways, including Hobart in Tasmania, which is currently free of any Covid-19 cases, Chile's Punta Arenas, or Ushuaia, Argentina.
Former Christchurch mayor Sir Bob Parker said competition for Antarctic business is high.
"Everybody wants a slice of that pie and Christchurch, and New Zealand, needs to do everything it can, frankly, to hold on to that," he said.
The global pandemic has seen programmes for the summer 2020/21 season significantly scaled back to "maintain essential operations and supply, and critical support of key infrastructure and long-term scientific research activities only", Mfat says.
A total of 158 members of the US Antarctic Programme and US Air Force have gone through managed isolation in Christchurch.
Between now and March next year, around 800 Antarctica programme participants are anticipated to enter New Zealand to support the programmes and/or deploy to Antarctica – with the majority coming from the US.
Medical equipment for screening and testing on the continent is due to be dispatched to McMurdo Station during the 2020/21 season, the Herald understands.
New Zealand's Covid-19 quarantine rules for Antarctica visitors, released to the Herald, state that international arrivals pay for their New Zealand Government managed isolation in the city they fly in to. Like other arrivals, they remain in managed isolation for 14 days, get tested on day three and day 12, and do not leave managed isolation without a negative test.
They then enter into isolation managed by the US Antarctic Programme until their flight to Antarctica.
The next arrivals into New Zealand from the US arrive in Christchurch tomorrow Tuesday), with 56 people on a US C-17 flight. Another 230 are scheduled to arrive in the city on a US charter plane on Friday.
Due to weather delays and poor runway conditions, the first flights to Antarctica for the 2020/21 season have not started yet, but are anticipated to begin next week.
New Zealand's only Antarctic research station, Scott Base has also scaled back its planned summer activities.
Antarctica New Zealand chief executive Sarah Williamson said they have been working closely with Mfat and collaborating with other national Antarctic programs to "ensure Antarctica remains Covid-19 free".
"These are unprecedented times and the measures offer extra protection for Antarctica, and New Zealanders in Antarctica," she said.