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Revisiting Aotearoa New Zealand's Border Restrictions

Revisiting Aotearoa New Zealand's Border Restrictions
By Shivan Sivakumaran • Issue #60 • View online
Kia ora e hoa,
My grandfather is 95. My grandmother is 86. Both are living in Sri Lanka. My father is on the verge of retirement and desperately wants to see his parents before they go. The only catch is his fear of being stranded in Sri Lanka. My father isn’t the only one caught in the predicament. Tens of thousands of Kiwis living abroad are desperate to return home, and Kiwis in the country are desperate to get out of the nation for a reason other than a holiday. One example is like with my father, for his family. Another is more unfortunate, attending a funeral. Or, the opposite to the sad circumstance of death is seeing a new addition to the family.
Some are simply trying to get home. Some are even representing the nation. Some are even stimulating the economy with big monetary deals. And all this is made difficult due to Aoeteroa’s border restrictions.
On March 19th 2020, Prime Minster Jacinda Arden made the bold move to close our countries borders to non-residents and non-citizens. A few days later, on March 25th, the nation went into its first-ever lockdown. Work from home, school from home and no takeaways became the norm. “Isolation”, “social distancing” became the most said words.
Ardern’s decision became the best decision ever made. Over a month later, New Zealand had eliminated the virus. All this, while other countries were reporting growing cases and deaths. New Zealand’s near COVID-freedom lasted just over a year. Then came along the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet. The delta variant plunged Aoeteroa into another lockdown. And here we are at the present day: restrictions are reducing, but the virus remains in the community.
There is no doubt the lockdown worked. But is the nation resting on her laurels? On the other hand, we have a former Prime Minister, Sir John Key, calling Aoeteroa a “smug hermit kingdom”. Aside from the extreme comparison to a merciless dictatorship, do our lockdown rules need revisiting, mainly around managed isolation quarantine or MIQ?
Managed Isolation Quarantine
According to the material provided by the Government, getting into the country can be done following simple steps.
Book an MIQ spot at a secure facility. This is normally a 5-star hotel and a stay for 14 evenings. Then, book flights for the return trip to New Zealand. The recommendation is to book the MIQ spot first, then marry this up with the flight.
Simple, right? But wait. Home-comers are slapped with a welcome home bill of about $3000. Already that excludes a lot of individuals in difficult financial situations. Not to mention exorbitant costs of plane tickets thanks to reduced supply of flights.
Even if you have enough money, the next hurdle comes from the lottery system. A limited number of MIQ spots are made available in a virtual lobby. More popular than an Adele concert, as every virtual lobby opens, individuals have a one in ten chance of securing a spot. The rest wait in desperation for the next episode of MIQ roulette.
Remember, the majority of these people want to reunify with their families, to be able to physically embrace their loved ones.
Finally, spot-securing individuals are given a MIQ voucher. Unfortunately, this voucher can be cancelled at any time. A reason for cancellation could be because the individual is travelling from what will be deemed a very high-risk country.
According to the government website, before travelling, individuals must have a negative nasopharyngeal real-time Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR or PCR) test result 72 hours prior to departure back to New Zealand. We can be assured that the test doesn’t come from anywhere but a government-approved laboratory. Sadly, the pre-departure test isn’t subsidised, costing the travelling individual NZ$175.
During the time in MIQ, MIQ inmates are tested on the day of arrival, day 0, then again on the 3rd day, 6th day and 12th day of stay. Testing is performed with or without symptoms, and those who refuse testing may be held at MIQ for up to 28 days.
Once the 14-day sentence is complete along with a 12th day negative test and no signs of sickness, the individual is released finally to be with their loved ones again.
A Suggestion
Initially, lockdown and border restrictions worked. COVID-19 was new. And nobody had a successful playbook devised to tackle this opponent. The best response was to throw the kitchen sink. Shut shop and reduce the spread.
That was then, and this is now. We have vaccinations, and we have a large body of research. We have masks, and we have contact tracing.
So let’s reach a compromise with MIQ rules.
Even with strict MIQ procedures, the delta variant still reached shores and ravaged our inland. This begs another question, is MIQ effective? Are 14 days, a particular location, and a price tag above $3000 really needed? Or can we relax just a little bit?
The reason for a 14-day stay is because according to the World Health Organisation symptoms take on average 5-6 days to appear but can take up to 14 days. The key is symptoms.
RT-PCR testing is considered the gold standard for testing and someone with infectious COVID-19 but no symptoms are best detected through the use of this method.
The question to ask is: does someone need to be in MIQ for fourteen days if multiple tests return negative results?
Unfortunately, the current turnover for PCR tests in New Zealand is 48 hours. Automated PCR testing does exist and can test and return results for 90 samples within 3.5 to 4 hours.
Individuals are contained and after all the tests are completed then a verdict can be made about their future. All negative and they self isolate at home for the period they would be in MIQ. A positive test means they are transported to MIQ.
This alternative means that we are able to get more desperate Kiwis home and even visitors through the border. Because MIQ facilities are sparsely used, they can be again funded by New Zealand’s public health strategy.
A second point is: do we need secure facilities like hotels for MIQ? Hotels work well because they have facilities in place to allow for long term stay. A cell, an exercise yard, and catering staff. With the addition of security and armed forces, a hotel can be easily transformed into a lock-up centre.
Hotels don’t only need to be the ones in on this fun. Share the love with designated motels and online lodging such as Airbnb. This will open up more spots if needed, meaning more Kiwis can enter the country.
On a positive note, the Government is piloting a self-isolation pilot in the ‘Reconnecting New Zealanders’ plan. It will be interesting to see how this will go.
Tens of thousands of Kiwis are stranded outside and trapped inside Aotearoa. The current state of MIQ makes it both expensive and difficult to enter or exit-and-then-enter the country.
This doesn’t help with high-cost flights and also slapping on MIQ stay. Even if you have the fortune, you still need to be fortunate to secure a spot thanks to the lottery system.
Typical MIQ stay is 14 days. With current testing and the ability to turn over a result quickly, it might be possible to get individuals to self isolate themselves from home instead of being incarcerated at the local MIQ.
The vast majority want to reconnect with family and this is difficult with the current border restrictions. This has been a personal issue for my father. Are you or any of your family in the same boat? Do you agree or disagree?
Did you find this useful? If you did, please forward this on to family and friends so they can find it useful too.
Thanks for reading and all the best for the week ahead.
Ngā mihi nui,
Shivan :)

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Shivan Sivakumaran

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