Ministry of Health recommended closing border to returning Kiwis – Winston Peters

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has revealed the Ministry of Health recommended closing the border to returning New Zealanders during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Peters said health officials were "really strong" in their push for it, and the Government understood why, because "when we said we're going to go early and go hard, it meant we're going to do everything we possibly can". 

Peters said it was Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) officials who provided "insight" about the consequences of blocking returning Kiwis. He applauded MFAT for their "confidence that we could handle it at the minimum risk". 

The prospect of blocking returning Kiwis was brought to Cabinet, Peters said, but was rejected on the premise that the Government knew tens of thousands of New Zealanders were spread across the globe and needed to get home. 

"The advice from health was block it, stop it - including New Zealanders." 

Despite Cabinet rejecting the idea, the New Zealander First leader said he is confident that blocking Kiwis returning is legal under international law. 

"We were sitting there, like every country was, watching international experts saying what this was," Peters said. "But thank heavens we had people within our Ministry of Health and in the wider scene - MFAT and others - saying we've got to get ourselves ready."

The idea was "championed by others and was a highly respected view", Peters said, but the Government had to weigh up the cost of forcing Kiwis to stay where they were and persuade health officials it could be achieved. 

"We presented that from MFAT and we've done it. And I salute the team that did it."

He said the consequence of leaving Kiwis where they were might never have been forgotten by other nations. He said the better solution was to assist foreign nationals stuck in New Zealand prompting foreign governments to help Kiwis. 

When asked how Kiwis would have responded to not being allowed back into the country, Peters said: "They had a right to think that the country had forsaken them."

But Peters said he doubts returnees were grateful to the New Zealand taxpayer. 

"I think many more should have got off the plane and said 'thank God to my country and the New Zealand taxpayer'."

In the last three months, MFAT has provided consular advice to 4500 New Zealanders, compared 700 in the same period last year. 

Peters said by international comparisons, New Zealand was "extremely unusual" in closing the borders to foreigners and in implementing a lockdown before a coronavirus-related death had been recorded. 

He signalled that Cabinet would consider, in coming weeks, its foreign and trade policy approach in the new COVID-19 world.

"We will be considering our foreign and trade policy priorities, in light of COVID-19, and especially how we can achieve a foreign and trade policy recovery.

"We need to be focused on how New Zealand positions itself in the new normal emerging following the arrival of COVID-19."

As of 24 April, MFAT had provided temporary financial assistance in the form of COVID-19 related consular advances - expected to be paid back - to 190 Kiwis overseas totalling $1,008,136.