COVID-19: Government announces extra tests for travellers from high-risk countries

The Government is increasing border restrictions to protect New Zealand from the highly contagious new strain of COVID-19 that is sweeping across the globe.

From Thursday, anyone arriving in New Zealand from the UK or the US will have to undergo an additional coronavirus test either at the airport or on their first day of isolation.

There's also plans to make sure people coming from the UK have a negative test before they board their flights.

It's been nine months since New Zealand went into lockdown and Kiwis are still trying to get home, including Melissa James who's been living in the UK.

"We've tried to stay over here where our jobs and things are, but I, myself, don't feel safe here in the UK anymore, I just want to be back in New Zealand," she told Newshub.

But that's becoming increasingly difficult. 

On Monday morning the Government announced it's likely those flying to Aotearoa from the UK and US will have to produce a verified negative test before boarding.

The new restrictions are causing concern for those who've spent months planning their journey home.

"I've handed in my notice at work already, so I'd then be jobless and stuck over here... so it's definitely stressful to know that's now potentially an option... that we may not be able to board," James said.

The testing regime is being ramped up because of concerns over the new, much more contagious strain of COVID-19 that's taken hold in the UK, NZ's Minister for COVID-19 Response Chris Hipkins said.

"If it's spreading faster, then that increases the risk for us," he said.

To reduce that risk, from Thursday people arriving from the UK and US will be tested immediately on arrival in New Zealand - at a taxpayer cost of $200 per test, on average.

COVID-19 expert Shaun Hendy told Newshub the extra test will let New Zealand reduce the margin of error in our isolation and quarantine facilities.

The cost of the other additional test - the pre-departure one - would fall on the traveller themselves.

The Government is still talking to airlines about that scheme because they would have to enforce the 'no negative test, no boarding', rule.

"It's hard for people overseas to get these tests, and some New Zealanders will find themselves having to pay quite substantially," Hendy said.

"It's another barrier for people in difficult circumstances, so I think it's got to be done well."

For now, the new measures would only apply to the UK and the US - which have accounted for 100 of the 277 positive border cases since October, but other countries such as India, Pakistan and Mexico are next on the list, Hipkins said.

"Most likely the day zero-day one testing will extend to them fairly soon, if we were going to implement pre-departure testing in the UK and the US we would look at those other countries where we're seeing higher risk as well." 

Under the new regulations, a person could be tested up to five times before leaving managed isolation.

For those who fail a pre-departure test, Hipkins said legally the Government can stop New Zealanders coming home if they test positive, but it will help Kiwis as much as possible. 

He said there are issues to work through before putting this testing in place because obviously many of these people will have no jobs or homes to return to if they are barred from a flight.

The Government is promising an announcement about the pre-departure testing in the next couple of weeks.