The borders will re-open next year after the vaccine rollout finishes and then we will see if enough of the population is vaccinated to stay the elimination course, Sir David Skegg says.
Skegg was speaking to the Herald after an expert panel he chairs released its advice to the Government, and ahead of a press conference this morning where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will respond to it.
The group’s advice, released yesterday, paints a sobering picture of an uncertain future in a world still gripped by Covid-19, where overseas travel is limited to the fully vaccinated and herd immunity is unattainable, making public health measures an important part of the elimination puzzle as border restrictions are eased.
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The advice included a caveat that no one really knows what the Covid-hit world will look like in three to five years, or even in six months’ time, which makes making promises about when the borders will reopen problematic.
That was in part the reason the group didn’t provide a target for when the borders could start to re-open and enough people were vaccinated for life to continue much as it does now – with few community Covid cases that are quickly stamped out as they arise.
Skegg added that the number of unvaccinated port workers at the border remained “a major concern”, especially in light of the 98 port workers in Tauranga who had a Covid-scare with the Rio de la Plata – only nine of them were fully vaccinated.
“I was shocked by the low vaccination uptake by port workers in Tauranga. Hopefully this is now being addressed.”
In Australia, an expert panel similar to Skegg’s one has suggested 80 per cent vaccination coverage of the eligible population before international travel might be opened up more.
“There is no way of determining this [level of vaccination coverage] with any precision,” Skegg told the Herald.
“We assume the re-opening of borders will start in a phased and carefully monitored way early next year, when the vaccination rollout is completed.
“Then we will discover whether the vaccination coverage achieved, together with our recommended precautions, such as rapid testing of travellers on arrival,plus strengthened public health and social measures, will be enough to maintain elimination of Covid-19.”
More open borders would inevitably lead to some outbreaks, but with a high level of vaccination coverage and public health measures – including localised lockdowns – these could be quickly stamped out.
Skegg said having large cohorts of unvaccinated people in different pockets of New Zealand could endanger not only them, but the vaccinated as well.
“The hospitals would be swamped and that would affect all kinds of people, including those needing urgent cancer treatment.That has been a major problem in other countries, such as the UK.”
The first phase of the re-opening, the group suggested, should be for fully vaccinated Kiwi travellers returning from short overseas trips to low-risk countries.
That was in part because their vaccination status would be reliably known, including which vaccine they’ve had – aspects that may not be so easy to certify in other travellers.
Skegg couldn’t say how long it would take to transition from there to quarantine-free entry, but piloting each phase would provide some insights to the timeline.
He said it would be ideal if the quarantine-free travel bubbles with Australia and the Cook Islands became travel corridors for the fully vaccinated.
That is already in the Government’s thinking.
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said yesterday re-opening the transtasman travel bubble might only happen for New Zealand citizens or those who are fully vaccinated.
The panel also points out the health system is still poorly resourced, and Skegg has recommended a review of how the system would deal with Covid-19 outbreaks.
“The relatively low provision of ICU beds per capita is certainly a concern.”
It was difficult to say for how long Covid-19 outbreaks and the possibility of localised lockdowns would be part of the new normal.
“It is too hard to predict. This pandemic keeps surprising everyone, and that is likely to continue.”
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