Vaccine rollout key to reducing MIQ for New Zealanders – expert group

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New Zealanders returning from a short overseas holiday could spend less time in managed isolation once most of the population is vaccinated.

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Photo: RNZ / Marika Khabazi

But the experts advising the government say it is too early to know if this will be the right response as the pandemic is changing so quickly.

The government has this morning released the advice it received on reopening New Zealand’s borders, compiled by a group lead by Sir David Skegg.

It will properly respond to the advice at the ‘Reconnecting New Zealanders to the World’ forum tomorrow morning.

But in a statement, Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall acknowledged the Delta variant had changed the group’s advice and the government’s approach to easing restrictions.

More needed to be done to strengthen the border and bolster the health system before restrictions could start to ease, Verrall said.

“That will take a little more time to properly prepare.”

Opening the border

The advisory group was adamant border restrictions must remain in place until the vaccine roll-out is complete. The group did not specify, however, what a completed roll-out looks like.

They note some in the community would prefer the borders remain shut until the risk of Covid-19 is completely eradicated, but said “sadly that day may never come.”

The experts initially suggested fully-vaccinated New Zealanders returning from a short overseas trip from a low-risk country be the first to be allowed to enter the country without having to go through MIQ, while other travellers could stay in managed isolation for a shorter period or quarantine at home.

All travellers would need to test negative before departure and would be tested again as soon as they land in the country. The experts suggested a compulsory test three days after they arrive is also introduced.

Professor David Skegg

Sir David Skegg led the expert advisory group Photo: supplied

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The group wants the government to look at bolstering contact tracing by tracking the mobile phones or EFTPOS transactions of recent returnees.

Their advice on allowing people into the country changed at the end of July, however, given the rapid spread of the more dangerous delta variant around the world.

The group now said a reduced time – five to seven days – in a managed isolation facility “would seem more realistic”.

They suggested recent returnees are then tested once or twice in the second week.

There would be a significant risk of Covid-19 leaking into the community, as seen in Sydney, if recent returnees were asked to isolate at home, the group said.

Whether or not this is the appropriate response once the vaccine roll-out is complete cannot be decided now, they said, as the pandemic is changing so rapidly.

The group also recommended New Zealand’s travel bubbles with Australia and the Cook Islands change as more people are vaccinated, to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading between countries.

They want travel to be restricted to fully vaccinated adults and children accompanying them.

The experts also expressed their surprise at suggestions fully-vaccinated people should be able to travel to New Zealand now without spending 14 days in managed isolation.

Some of them would inevitably carry the virus into New Zealand, possibly resulting in large outbreaks in the country’s largely unvaccinated population, they said.

Preparation needed

A considerable amount of work needed to happen before border restrictions could be eased, according to the advisory group.

It recommended the Government mandates the use of QR codes in some places to increase the “abysmal” use of the tracer app.

A person using the Covid Tracer app

Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

It also wanted the contact tracing system and capacity of the health system to be reviewed to see how they would cope in the event of a large outbreak of Covid-19.

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The group also suggested an expert committee is established to advise the government on “the many laboratory testing issues that will arise over the next 18 months at least”.

Those problems include ensuring labs can cope with large numbers of Covid-19 tests that need to be processed when restrictions ease and deciding what rapid tests are used to screen travellers when they arrive in New Zealand.

Elimination strategy “best” option

Continuing with an elimination strategy as the border restrictions begin to ease is the best approach, according to the group of experts.

They warned the pandemic is far from over and the outcome in three to five years’ time is unknown.

“The most optimistic scenario is that Covid-19 will have become a far less serious public health problem… A much more pessimistic scenario is that variants will have emerged that are more transmissible, more lethal, and resistant to vaccines.”

New Zealand needed to prepare for both scenarios and the more likely case that the situation will be somewhere in between, they said.

Easing border restrictions would increase the likelihood of clusters and “occasional large outbreaks” but these could be contained with testing, rapid tracing, isolating contacts, physical distancing and mask wearing, they said.

“Some localised elevations of alert levels may be unavoidable after borders are reopened.”

The group warned if the elimination strategy was abandoned, endemic infection would become established and “it would probably never be possible to reverse the change”.

Sticking with the elimination strategy gave New Zealand options, they said.

“If it became clear over the next few years that the costs of elimination outweighed the benefits, it would be a simple matter to follow the example of other countries.”

The experts recommend the elimination strategy is reviewed regularly.

The advisory group also suggested the government should come up with a new name for ‘elimination strategy’.

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They recommended choosing a name in te reo Māori “to reflect the unique approach of Aotearoa New Zealand to this pandemic virus”.

“Such a name could provide clarity in identifying our strategy for dealing with outbreaks originating from international travellers, in order to prevent the establishment of endemic disease.”

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