Self-isolation for returning Kiwis has run its course

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Politics

A decision on self-isolation for returning Kiwis will be taken at Monday’s Cabinet meeting. Ministers received advice late on Sunday as justification for returnees having to self-isolate ended, writes political editor Jo Moir.

To analyse: It will be a different Parliament sitting in Wellington this week as MPs try out the new hybrid system for the first time since Omicron arrived in the country.

While some MPs will still sit in the House as usual, others will be teleported from their homes and participate in debate via screens on the floor of the chamber.

This is just a taste of what lies ahead as the country looks towards phase three and tens of thousands of daily cases.

The move to the highest red light setting means close contact is a thing of the past and the health system is trying to cope with nearly 15,000 cases a day on Sunday alone, only those who live in the same household as a positive case are now required to stay home and self-isolate.

This transition has called into question the need for Kiwis who test negative and are doubly vaccinated returning from Australia to self-isolate on arrival for seven days.

Australia’s door will open again on Monday for the first time since the Trans-Tasman bubble officially burst in July after just 95 days of travel between the two countries.

For now, returning Kiwis will have to self-isolate, but Newsroom understands that could change before they’ve even completed their seven days.

Certainly, the odds that any self-isolation will be required by March 13, when the doors open to Kiwis returning home from the rest of the world, are next to nil.

With cases likely to tip over 15,000 on Monday, there’s really no reason not to let the Kiwis go home and just get a rapid antigen test and monitor for symptoms.

Chief Health Officer Dr Ashley Bloomfield provided advice to the government last week stressing that the health risk is higher in the community compared to those bringing the virus from across the frontier.

But it is Sir David Skegg’s Covid-19 advisory group that the Cabinet has been waiting to hear from, and it is that advice that will determine the next steps.

The advice arrived late on Sunday and Cabinet will vote on the matter when it meets on Monday.

National chief Christopher Luxon has renewed calls to immediately end self-isolation and open the border to Kiwis overseas, and quickly follow suit for vaccinated travelers wishing to visit for vacation or travel business.

ACT’s David Seymour says the MIQ should be scrapped altogether and travelers coming to New Zealand should be treated like anyone else in the community.

The newsroom understands that the March 13 date for opening up to Kiwis from other countries is unlikely to change, given that there are only two weeks left, but growing public and political pressure could also shake things up. .

Opening dates for other visa holders and vaccinated travelers later in the year are constantly being reviewed and the Prime Minister has already indicated that they could be brought forward depending on when the country passes the Omicron peak.

The rapid pace at which things are changing is evident as New Zealanders spent just nine days in phase two of the red light system before moving into phase three on Friday.

Ardern argued that the decisions at the border were guided by health advice and do not put the health system under additional pressure at a time when community cases are increasing.

But that must increasingly be weighed against public and political pressure to let Kiwis return home at a time when the risk they pose is no greater than anyone else already living here.

With cases likely to tip over 15,000 on Monday, there’s really no reason not to let the Kiwis go home and just get a rapid antigen test and monitor for symptoms.

There has been speculation that self-isolation requirements could initially be relaxed to, say, five or three days for returnees, before being scrapped altogether.

But this kind of phased approach would have made more sense if the daily cases had passed by the thousands over a longer period.

The rapid move into phase three and the rate at which cases are increasing means there would be little justification for this now and the only Cabinet decision is when the self-isolation of returning Kiwis will be phased out altogether.

Once this decision is made, the pressure will mount more and more in the coming months for other travelers to be allowed entry earlier than expected.

Much of this depends on flight availability and the ability of airlines to speed up and connect flights.

As the Omicron Wave robs people of freedoms in the coming months, as more people get sick and stay home, the ability to jump on a flight and cross the gap will once again be the norm.

Some overseas travel itineraries currently involve transit times of 60 hours or more.

For Air New Zealand, cross-Tasman demand would increase rapidly once self-isolation rules are lifted, but with so many flights already half-empty there is already plenty of capacity.

Flights are also mostly booked for the Easter holiday period, which would just mean putting more in April, allowing plenty of time to ramp up and recruit more staff.

While many will jump at the chance to return home and reunite with family and friends or take business trips that have been delayed for years, there is still a trust issue to overcome.

Those who have been burned in the past with false starts due to Omicron will no doubt wait to see the system work before committing.

New Zealanders who call Australia home have always counted on being able to return, if necessary, at short notice.

For nearly two years, that was not the case.

As the Omicron Wave robs people of freedoms in the coming months, as more people get sick and stay home, the ability to jump on a flight and cross the gap will once again be the norm.

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