Coronavirus: Government introduces 'very high risk' country category with new requirements on travellers

The COVID-19 Response Minister says the Government is creating a new border restriction category for "very high risk" countries which he says is expected to significantly reduce the number of infected people coming into New Zealand.

The Government is also introducing what it is calling "enhanced cohorting" which will mean returnees will now be in the same managed isolation facility as others who have arrived at about the same time. 

It comes as cases spiral out of control in some parts of the globe, such as India. The Government temporarily blocked travel from the south-Asian nation earlier in April.

New border category

The new 'very high risk' category will come into effect from April 29.

"Countries have initially been designated very high risk where there have been more than 50 cases of COVID-19 per 1000 arrivals to New Zealand from those countries in 2021, and where there are more than 15 travellers on average per month," Chris Hipkins said.

"India, Brazil, Papua New Guinea and Pakistan are the countries that currently meet that threshold, and as a result, travellers from those countries will be temporarily restricted to New Zealand citizens, their partners and children, and parents of children who are New Zealand citizens."

All travellers from countries in this category will have to show evidence of a negative PCR test from an accredited laboratory within 72 hours prior to travel.

Hipkins said this was "not an easy decision" and "based entirely on current risk assessment and will be reviewed regularly".

"All other travellers, including residents, will be required to have been outside of the very high risk country for at least 14 days before flying to New Zealand."

On the day the temporary India travel ban was announced, New Zealand recorded 17 MIQ cases who had arrived in the country from India. That continued a pattern of India being the departure point of most of Aotearoa's daily border cases. 

The temporary ban is set to expire on April 28, but the country's outbreak has significantly worsened in the meantime. The confirmed daily death figures have more than doubled, and there's evidence on the ground that might be just a fraction of the true toll. 

The Government had previously been reluctant to stop flights from any nation altogether, saying Kiwis had a right to come home.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the India ban was "not a permanent arrangement, but rather a temporary measure until we are able to better understand and manage the current situation we are facing and see if there are ways to reduce the risk that actually travellers themselves are facing".

An update will be provided in May on the process for adding new countries to the category and for removing countries from it.

'Enhanced cohorting'

With the quarantine-free bubble with Australia meaning fewer people needing to go into MIQ facilities, the Government has the "opportunity to rethink our approach to how we manage returnees", Hipkins said on Friday. There are about 500 to 800 rooms freed up.

The Government will introduce an "enhanced cohorting" system to reduce the risk of in-facility transmission. 

"Under the new plan, returnees arriving in New Zealand over a 96-hour window will be delivered to MIQ facilities until they are full or the 96-hour period is over," he said.

"The facilities will then 'lock down' for a 14-day cycle with no additional returnees allowed until after the last of the cohort have completed their stay and the facilities have been cleaned."

This means returnees will be in the same facility as others who have arrived at about the same time and keep those who have just arrived away from those at the end of their stay.

The Pullman Hotel will be the first facility to receive the new cohorted arrivals on Saturday and the transition will be complete by Sunday, 16 May.

"Day 0/1 testing, staying in their room until a negative result is returned, Days 3 and 12 testing, limited exposure to others when exercising and smoking, and physical distancing will continue to apply across all facilities."

Chris Bishop, National's COVID-19 Response spokesperson, says his party has been calling since January for arrivals from high-risk countries to be separated from other arrivals.

"We said then, and repeat now, it simply does not make sense for passengers from higher risk countries like India and the United Kingdom to be treated the same as passengers from lower risk countries like the Pacific Islands."

Bishop also wants to see rapid antigen testing for everyone coming from overseas, daily saliva testing for those working in MIQ, and investigating the construction of a purpose-built COVID quarantine facility on the outskirts of Auckland.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment also announced on Friday that an independent report into three transmissions events that occurred in January in the Pullman Hotel found it was not possible to find where and how transmission happened. 

It did, however, find the most likely mode of transmission was "as a result of respiratory particle transmission".

"The report notes the three cases of transmission occurred in the context of emerging new strains of COVID-19 with higher transmissibility, increased global incidence of COVID, growing international evidence of aerosol transmission and greater awareness of the role of ventilation systems," it said.

The report made several recommendations which have since been implemented.