COVID-19: Government not changing managed isolation and quarantine rules in foreseeable future is illogical - Auckland Uni professor Des Gorman

By RNZ's Checkpoint

The Government's decision to leave managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) requirements unchanged for the foreseeable future is illogical and there needs to be a reward for being vaccinated, says an Auckland University professor of medicine.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has backed away from any suggestion there could be changes to MIQ requirements by the end of the year.

But Professor Des Gorman told Checkpoint that by considering everyone to be in the same boat, the Government risks overwhelming MIQ facilities with people who "really don't need to be there".

At his weekly press conference updating progress on the vaccination roll out on Wednesday, Hipkins essentially slapped another padlock on the border gate, warning people requirements for isolation will stay the same at least until the end of the year and likely beyond that.

"I'm still working on the basis that certainly for this year people will be in MIQ for 14 days probably into early next year as well but we haven't made any firm decisions about that," Hipkins said.

That means double vaccinated people returning to New Zealand will still need to snare a spot in MIQ and stay there the full 14 days.

However, Hipkins said as vaccination rates increase other options could be considered.

"Longer-term and again I don't want to put a timeframe on this but it might include things like alternative isolation options like people isolating at home when they come into the country.

"But that's a way away it's not going to happen this year I don't think and certainly in the early part of next year I'd imagine that things are going to continue in much the same way as they are now," Hipkins said.

Des Gorman.
Des Gorman. Photo credit: The AM Show

He said New Zealand won't be taking a bold approach to ease restrictions as other countries have.

The Government's also been getting advice on border and vaccine issues from its own expert advisory group and has said it will release more information in the next few weeks.

But Dr Gorman said the Government's decision to leave MIQ requirements unchanged for the foreseeable future is illogical.

He argued there needs to be a reward for vaccination.

Chris Hipkins.
Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Newshub.

"On the one hand recognising that so many of us are unvaccinated means you need to take a very cautious approach to things like travel bubbles, border management and contact tracing.

"That doesn't mean you can't reward people who are vaccinated," he said.

Utilising alternative isolation methods for low-risk people would relieve stress on MIQ facilities, said Dr Gorman.

"If I'm fully vaccinated coming from a low-risk country and I isolate for a few days, have a negative pre-departure test and I go home agreeing to leave my phone on so they can track me then I have another test, it makes no sense that you're going to make me go into a MIQ facility and occupy a space that someone who doesn't meet the criteria would be better placed in."

If people meet this criterion their COVID risk becomes incalculably low, he said.

Aircrews are currently operating under this system and Dr Gorman explained it's a highly effective method of managing low-risk people entering the country.

He argued fully vaccinated people should be given a vaccine passport which allows some level of freedom of movement.

While Hipkins has suggested a vaccine passport system could be established by the end of the year, Dr Gorman urged the Government to aim for a faster rollout.

He warned New Zealand must avoid following in the footsteps of the UK's easing of COVID-19 restrictions.

"If we try to treat everyone the same regardless of their vaccination status we'll end up with a situation like the UK where you when you get a certain [vaccination] threshold like 60 percent the demands to throw open the doors and abandon all precautions become overwhelming. I think we need a more nuanced approach."

Britain's approach was expected to generate new mutant strains of the virus which could be more infectious and less vulnerable to vaccination, Dr Gorman said.

"The warning for us is, how do you manage the expectations of the public that somehow that there's going to be this transition from isolation to integration overnight? And that's why I think there needs to be some way in which we can address the integration drive now for people who are vaccinated.

"Otherwise you end up like the UK where you have an all-or-nothing approach which I think is very brave," he said.

Dr Gorman said people arriving from the UK should be considered as high-risk regardless of whether they're vaccinated or not.