Shorter MIQ stays for Kiwis returning from short overseas trips should be the first phase in reopening the borders next year - but only if they are fully vaccinated and have visited low-risk countries.
And this should only be an option once the vaccination rollout is complete, with an expectation that some outbreaks and localised lockdowns will be part of the new normal.
That is the advice in papers released this morning by an independent panel of experts, chaired by epidemiologist Sir David Skegg.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will respond to the panel's advice tomorrow.
The papers present a sobering picture of an uncertain future in a world still gripped by Covid-19, where overseas travel is limited to the fully vaccinated and herd immunity is unattainable, making public health measures an important part of the elimination puzzle as border restrictions are eased.
The panel's advice included a caveat that no one really knows what the Covid-hit world will look like in three to five years, or even in six months' time, which makes making promises about when the borders will reopen problematic.
"It is not inconceivable that, by the end of the year, there could be an established variant that is significantly resistant to the vaccine," the panel said.
Skegg this morning defended New Zealand's elimination strategy but says there may become a point where it's no longer possible.
Speaking on Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking Breakfast, he said New Zealand was forging its own path with regards to its coronavirus elimination strategy.
"We think we should be giving it our best shot ... but we may find next year it's no longer possible," he said.
In response to Hosking's question on why there was no vaccine target recommended in the report, he said the panel wanted to be as ambitious as possible at getting to 100 per cent.
He said there was no magic threshold of herd immunity, which could be observed by infection rates in highly vaccinated countries such as the UK.
He didn't want a vaccination target to discourage people from getting vaccinated, believing they could be in the minority.
"We will open the borders so I think people should get vaccinated this year," he said.
He also pointed to yesterday's Covid scare in Tauranga as a reason why Kiwis needed to be protected, even if not planning overseas travel.
The panel didn't say what proportion of the eligible population should be vaccinated before the rollout is considered to be complete, but the higher the better, even though "some magical state of herd immunity" was not achievable.
"Modelling studies suggest that likely levels of vaccination coverage, both in New Zealand and overseas countries, will not be sufficient to cross the herd immunity threshold."
Once the rollout has finished, the panel recommended a phased reopening of the border, starting with a five- to seven-day MIQ stay.
It had initially also suggested allowing MIQ time to be spent at home, but scrapped that in light of the dangers of the Delta variant and the likelihood of non-compliance leading to Covid-19 seeping into the community.
Shorter MIQ stays should firstly be offered to Kiwis returning from a short overseas trip - up to a month - which would open up the possibility of more business or holiday trips, and even incentivise people wanting to do so to get vaccinated.
Travellers should be required to be fully vaccinated - unless they are children accompanying the adults - and to have a negative pre-departure test, an on-arrival test, and possibly a day 3 test.
The panel also changed its advice following the emergence of the Delta variant to suggest additional testing in the second week.
To help contact-tracing, getting their consent to be tracked after leaving MIQ via mobile phone tracking or EFTPOS purchases should also be explored.
Work to put these systems in place - including which tests should be used and which vaccines are good enough to make travellers eligible - should begin now, starting with establishing an expert committee including medical laboratory scientists, clinical microbiologists, and an epidemiologist.
As arrangements are fine-tuned, the borders could be opened up more, including to quarantine-free travel for the fully vaccinated.
The panel added that bolstering contact-tracing capacity, more capacity for the "still poorly resourced" health system, and mandatory QR scanning in high-risk venues should be looked at in anticipation of inevitable outbreaks once the borders are more open.
These could be stamped out quickly if there was a high proportion of the population vaccinated, alongside testing and contact-tracing.
Higher vaccine coverage would also make lockdowns less likely, even though "some localised elevations of alert levels may be unavoidable after borders are reopened".
The panel said that quarantine-free travel bubbles with Australia and the Cook Islands should transition to become travel corridors for the fully vaccinated, once enough of those populations are vaccinated.
The panel was surprised at the mere suggestion of opening quarantine-free travel to other countries before the rollout here was complete.
"It would be inevitable that people carrying the virus would enter New Zealand on a regular basis. Citizens could justifiably feel aggrieved, if they were exposed to this infection before being given the opportunity to be protected by vaccination.
"Furthermore, with only a partially vaccinated population, the resulting clusters and outbreaks of infection might well be too large for our public health units."
Some people would prefer to leave the borders closed until there is "no risk" of Covid-19 outbreaks.
"Sadly that day may never come."
The panel endorsed Ardern's decision not to set a vaccination target, but instead to aim to vaccinate as many adults as possible.
The panel includes Skegg, clinical immunologist Maia Brewerton, public health physician Philip Hill, biostatistician Dr Ella Iosua, infectious diseases expert Professor David Murdoch and Immunisation Advisory Centre director Dr Nikki Turner.