Coronavirus: Was Labour wrong to dismiss National's pre-departure COVID-19 test policy? Chris Hipkins argues otherwise

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins once described National's pre-departure COVID-19 test policy as "fraught", but he now believes it's the right time to implement it because circumstances have changed. 

Hipkins confirmed on Tuesday that the Government is extending pre-departure testing to all passengers to New Zealand except for those coming from Australia, Antarctica and most Pacific Island nations. 

From February 8, all passengers arriving in New Zealand except those from exempted countries without evidence of a negative approved test or medical certificate will incur an infringement offence fee or a fine not exceeding $1000.

The policy has been expanded after previously only applying to passengers from the United States and Britain. Hipkins had foreshadowed that it would be expanded when the policy was announced earlier this month. 

In the lead-up to the election campaign in August, National proposed pre-departure tests for returnees to New Zealand, as well as 14 days of managed isolation, as part of its border policy, which Hipkins criticised at the time as unnecessary.   

"We've seen instances of people being infected in transit, so if you take someone leaving London, for example, they may go through several airports and it may take them a process of two or three days to get home, in which case they can become infected during that time," Hipkins said at the time. 

"That doesn't necessarily increase our level of security as opposed to what we have in place now."

But Hipkins said on Tuesday circumstances have changed and that now is the appropriate time to introduce the policy, given the emergence of more transmissible variants of the coronavirus. 

"We've always said we'll keep our COVID-19 protective measures under constant review, and where the circumstances change, we will make changes as necessary," he told reporters. 

"There are a number of things that are different now to three or four months ago. First of all, testing is much more widely available internationally than it was three or four months ago. If we'd tried to do this in that timeframe a lot of people wouldn't have been able to comply because they simply wouldn't have been able to get tests," he said. 

"We've already got some of the most restrictive measures in the world but the international growth of COVID-19 and couple that with the increasing virulence of the virus - the fact that people are contracting it more quickly and more easily - that justifies even more stringent measures."

Hipkins said after four days of flights arriving with travellers from the US and UK, so far there has been "extremely high levels" of compliance with the pre-departure test policy. 

Hipkins said the Government will make sure that a variety of COVID-19 tests are accepted as evidence, where lab PCR testing is not freely available and the only option might be a rapid antigen test.

"It's important to remember here that this is not going to stop COVID-19 coming into New Zealand. We are still going to see people showing up at the border who subsequently test positive. Our goal here is to reduce the number of people who are arriving with COVID-19, particularly in light of the increasing number of people who are being infected around the world."

The Government has also expanded day one testing at managed isolation and quarantine facilities to all passengers to New Zealand except for those coming from Australia, Antarctica or most Pacific Islands. 

All travellers arriving in New Zealand are still required to complete 14 days mandatory isolation, including routine day three and day 12 COVID-19 tests.