The Prime Minister’s plan to re-open the borders came with a massive caveat, but was also a lot more ambitious than many will have expected.
The staged proposal for opening the borders to vaccinated travellers is careful and nuanced.
There were no specific dates or targets, but it did answer the question many were asking: did the PM intend to sacrifice everything on the altar of elimination forever?
The answer was no –although that would remain the case until at least next year.
There was a carefully couched tough love warning to those who might delay or refuse to get vaccinated in the PM’s speech. It was that the clock was ticking.
The plan will keep them protected for the rest of this year at least.
But once everybody has had a chance to get vaccinated, the PM made it clear she will not protect the hold-outs forever.
The PM was unequivocal about that, saying border closures were only ever a temporary measure.
“We cannot keep border restrictions on forever. And to be absolutely clear, we do not want either.”
The PM has often spoken about the vaccines as “personal armour”. Those who opt not to wear it will eventually be left to fend for themselves.
The plan delivers a further incentive to get vaccinated by making it clear unvaccinated people will have to do two weeks in MIQ for the foreseeable future, while the vaccinated may do shorter stints, or isolate or home, or escape any quarantine obligations.
Ardern was under significant pressure to deliver on a plan for re-opening, as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had done.
She delivered a similar plan to his, but more careful in terms of the management of travellers from different countries.
While Morrison set specific vaccination targets, Ardern has not. Instead she said she would be looking for the spread of vaccines, regionally and over different demographics of New Zealand.
The only change before the end of the year will be to run a trial project of allowing a carefully selected group of vaccinated New Zealanders to isolate at home rather than in MIQ.
The trial will be welcome news in the short term for businesses who need to send people off shore, and will allow the Government to test-drive the testing and compliance monitoring that will be needed to make home isolation a broader offering.
Ardern has pointed to the importance of the vaccinations uptake in deciding when to allow more quarantine-free travel.
But her speech also made it clear that the Government, too, has some work to do before that can happen.
She spoke of the need to set up rapid-testing technology at airports, develop a vaccinations certification system, and, importantly, to boost the ICU capacity at hospitals to prepare for the increased likelihood of an outbreak. The latter was one of the most concerning criticisms in the Covid health advisory group’s report.
Both Ardern’s and Morrison’s plans carry an identical and significant caveat: it is that the plan could be completely turned on its head if a new, aggressive variant came along and outstripped the vaccine.
If not, New Zealanders can look forward to more travel, more travellers, and a reduced risk of lockdowns from next year – if they are vaccinated.
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