Due to the risk of the Omicron variety, New Zealand border rules have been tightened with the border ordered to be temporarily closed, the only route home for New Zealander expats abroad and visa holders.
On Tuesday evening, officials stated that fresh slots in the country’s managed isolation and quarantine system (MIQ) would not be distributed.
MIQ under extreme pressure as New Zealand border rules changed
Chris Hipkins, the Covid-19 response minister, stated on Wednesday that while the suspension was “temporary,” there was no timetable for when slots would be available again, implying that New Zealand’s border would be blocked to individuals without a previous appointment for an indefinite period of time.
“Pausing the next MIQ lobby is a temporary position while MIQ is under extreme pressure from New Zealanders returning with Omicron,” he said.
“No decisions have been made on the date, sequence and conditions for the border reopening and cabinet will consider options within the next couple of weeks based on the most up to date advice. Until then, we are not in a position to release more MIQ rooms.”
Chris Bunny, the head of MIQ, stated that there had been an “unprecedented number of Omicron cases coming into New Zealand and MIQ,” with a tenfold rise in cases at the border compared to December, and a seven-day rolling average of 33.
New Zealand detected 24 new cases in the community on Wednesday. One of those cases has been identified as an Omicron case, a MIQ worker’s household contact. Separately, an airport employee tested positive for the virus on Wednesday.
New Zealand border rules preventing new arrivals are critical to avoid an outbreak
New Zealand’s rigorous border controls have been critical in preventing an Omicron outbreak as well as keeping Covid cases to an absolute minimum, but they are also a cause of growing agony and frustration for people who have been barred out, often in extraordinarily terrible personal situations.
Aside from the perilous option of trying to board a boat across the Tasman Sea, getting a position in MIQ is the only means to enter New Zealand. The rooms, which are issued through a lottery method, are in high demand. At the time of the latest release, in early January, there was a line of 16,000 individuals waiting to secure one of the 1,250 vacant rooms.
The cancellation of future releases was upsetting for individuals who were trapped abroad. Maxine Strydom, a member of Grounded Kiwis, which fights for stranded New Zealanders, said she was stuck in Perth with her two children and had been unable to find a place despite the fact that her work and lease in Australia had ended. “All of us stranded overseas are affected. We’re all going through mental and emotional stress,” she explained. “Soon I’m going to have no money, no house, and no help in a foreign country.”
Claire, a New Zealander expat living in San Diego, said, “I feel like every shred of hope has been stripped away … There is no end in sight, it’s just demoralising.” Claire asked to be identified only by her first name because she was concerned about criticism from fellow New Zealanders, the majority of whom support border restrictions.
Prof Paula Lorgelly, a New Zealander expat in the United Kingdom working as a health economist, had been attempting to schedule her return to the United Kingdom since 2021. She commended the New Zealand government’s general Covid policies but said that the flight cancellations had been painful for her personally. “I’m kind of resigned to waiting,” she quipped. “[I hope] that it’s a short-term pain for what I perceive to be quite a long-term gain.”
As a temporary remedy for locked out expats in Australia, the MIQ has given them vouchers.
Tightening of New Zealand border rules is unprecedented
The government had earlier announced intentions to begin reopening the border to vaccinated travellers in stages beginning in mid-February, while warning of possibility of returning to red traffic light setting if Omicron variant spreads in the country.
However, with the unprecedented development of Omicron, that goal has been put back, and no alternate timetable for when border restrictions may be relaxed has been disclosed. The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, warned last week that it was only a matter of time until an Omicron outbreak breached the country’s border and that the country needs to take advantage of this opportunity to boost vaccination rates as much as possible.
Approximately 80% of New Zealand’s entire population has received one dosage, and 78% are completely vaccinated.
Hipkins stated that New Zealand will boost vaccinations during the period that the border remained closed. “Our focus will be on getting booster rates up and immunising as many five to 11-year-olds as possible before Omicron takes hold in the community.”