Chris Hipkins says border will remain open despite threat of new COVID-19 strain

The Government has ruled out closing New Zealand's border even as more virulent strains of COVID-19 spread across the globe - but one expert says more needs to be done to protect Kiwis from COVID-19. 

Minister for the COVID-19 response Chris Hipkins told The AM Show closing the border completely is not an option.

"It isn't feasible to close the border - under international law we have to allow New Zealand citizens to return home or else you create a group of stateless refugees with no home."

New Zealand's managed isolation facilities now house both the highly-transmissible UK variant of COVID-19 and a new one associated with South Africa.

In response to the spreading danger, Hipkins announced further border requirements last week. Returnees are now being tested for COVID-19 as soon as they arrive in the country and will stay in strict isolation in their hotel rooms until it comes back negative.

All returnees will also need to return a negative COVID-19 test from their country of origin before getting on a plane to return to New Zealand. 

While it's not perfect, Hipkins says the border is being monitored extremely closely to protect New Zealand's community from COVID-19.

"There is no such thing as a foolproof border - there will always be an element of risk, but every day we're looking to see how we can make that risk as small as possible."

But epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker says there is "a lot more" that could be done to reduce the risk.

"The number of people coming into New Zealand each month is 11,000 - so really we are exposed to the risk of importing this virus. I know that the managed isolation facilities are very well but they can never be perfect."

He says he would prefer the Government use "all the tools we have available" to dampen the risk.

"A single [pre-departure] test is not enough - think about what people are doing before they leave, they'll be rushing around preparing, saying goodbye, travelling to the airport. 

We could potentially fund them to stay for a few days in an airport hotel [before departure] as well as the rapid test."

Dr Baker says the roll out of the COVID-19 vaccine will help New Zealand's fight against the virus - but the months of lead up before that becomes available are crucial.

"We know the vaccine is on the horizon and that will make a difference - but we need to make the next 6 months work."

Hipkins said on Monday he anticipates the first shipment of a COVID-19 vaccination to arrive in New Zealand within the first quarter of 2021. This will cover the most high-risk in Aotearoa's population.

In the second quarter three different vaccines will become available - and that's when the rest of New Zealand can expect to be able to get vaccinated.