Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has shut down calls to close New Zealand's borders to citizens and permanent residents as mutated strains of COVID-19 wreak havoc overseas.
In recent months, the vast majority of New Zealand's cases have been imported by new arrivals and detected due to routine testing at the border. However, two variants of the virus, B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 - first discovered in the UK and South Africa respectively - have caused mounting concern due to their increased transmissibility. Britain has been particularly ravaged by the variant - both of which are believed to be between 50 and 70 percent more contagious than the strain that circulated New Zealand last year - with dramatic spikes in its case numbers.
Earlier this month, leading epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker called on the Government to shut the border to citizens returning from the UK and the US, arguing that the variants may stand a greater chance of leaking through our barriers.
He urged the Government to take "very assertive action to protect New Zealand".
"I really think we need to be turning down the flow of these infected people from these countries, unfortunately," he told Newshub. "At one extreme I think we should consider what other countries are doing now and that is actually suspending travel from countries, the UK and the US, for a period until we are confident we can manage this risk."
Yet during a Facebook livestream on Tuesday night, Ardern shut down suggestions that expatriates would be denied entry.
"We have to let people who have a legal right to live here - such as our own citizens - to come home, otherwise you're making them stateless," she said.
"If we had an entirely closed border, we wouldn't be able to import goods or critical medicines and critical supplies. They come in often through our border, which requires contact with people at our maritime border or through aviation.
"That's one of many reasons why we've kept the regime that we have. We're constantly monitoring our infection control though, and our quarantine, to do as much as we can to keep COVID out."
She added that she couldn't think of a country that had closed its borders entirely.
"The UK, like New Zealand, is still allowing their citizens and residents to return - I don't know of any country that isn't allowing that."
The Prime Minister also addressed New Zealand's vaccination rollout, reiterating that those at the greatest risk of infection - border workers - would be the first to be inoculated against the virus.
Ardern also confirmed that New Zealand's border restrictions and quarantine programme will remain in place - with few exemptions - despite the upcoming vaccination programme. She noted that for changes to be considered, it would either require enough of the population being immunised to guarantee New Zealand's safety, or pending research, the guarantee that vaccinated people cannot transmit the virus.
"That's something we're looking at now - is it the case that if you're vaccinated, you're no longer a risk of giving other people COVID and you don't become a point of transmission?" Ardern said.
"We don't know that yet. We will keep looking at the evidence to see if you're vaccinated, whether or not that can make a difference to the rules around our border. Until then, the borders remain closed."