The Government is temporarily suspending arrivals from India as cases skyrocket in the south Asian nation.
At a press conference on Thursday, Dr Ashley Bloomfield revealed 17 of New Zealand's 23 most recent managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) COVID-19 cases arrived in the country from India. That continues a pattern of India being the departure point of most of Aotearoa's daily border cases.
With cases in India skyrocketing - its three-day average is 112,000 cases per day - there have been calls for extra precautions to be in place for people travelling from there to New Zealand.
"We have been asked to and have provided advice to the Government about how best to manage the increased risk arising from this situation," Dr Bloomfield said. "That is the increased risk of in-flight transmission on those long-haul flights arriving in New Zealand and, of course, to border workers working in the facilities and/or others in those facilities."
Later on Thursday afternoon, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the Government is temporarily suspending arrivals from India until April 28. This will take effect from 4pm on Sunday. That allows the Government time to draft the legal orders required.
"I want to emphasise that while arrivals with COVID from India has prompted this measure, we are looking at how we manage high-risk points of departure generally," she said.
This is the first time New Zealand has suspended travel for Kiwi citizens and residents.
"That's why I do want to ensure you this is 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 as they embark on their journeys to New Zealand."
This temporary measure will give the Government more time to look at how to manage the cases. She said the Government has obligations to allow citizens home, so that's why the measure is temporary.
"It is not our intention that this be a long-term tool because that simply would not be, for a long period of time, that is just not something we are able to do to our citizens."
The Government isn't looking at suspending arrivals from other countries because there aren't the same number of cases coming into New Zealand from them.
Professor Nick Wilson, an epidemiologist from the University of Otago, and his colleagues have been advocating for reducing the number of people arriving from high-risk countries for months.
"It is actually something we should have been doing quite a long time ago from countries where the pandemic is clearly completely out of control," he tells Newshub.
"The Government has moved way too slowly on this particular issue."
He says tougher rules are needed to shut out the virus and improve systems at MIQ facilities, especially if we want to ensure the upcoming trans-Tasman bubble is a success.
Discussing the advice the ministry provided to the Government prior to Ardern's announcement, Dr Bloomfield said new measures could be imposed on travellers.
"It could be requirements around the nature of the [pre-departure] test that is done… if we look at some of these cases, their onset of symptoms is pre-or during travel here," he said. "So I guess we would be looking at what other measures could be put in place to prevent people travelling should they be or become symptomatic during the journey."
Dr Bloomfield said more could also be done in New Zealand.
"We are picking [cases] up at day 0/1 largely, but it may be that people coming from high-risk places like Brazil or India, there might be additional requirements on isolation while awaiting test results, so that could be a longer period, and there could be additional cohorting of them to help again reduce the risk of infection to others."
That may mean putting everyone from India and other high-risk countries into a single MIQ facility, he said.
The Director-General was asked if the Ministry of Health provided advice on halting flights from India.
"Not specifically, because I think that is an all-of-Government piece of advice, but we gave our public health advice on what our assessment is of the current risk and therefore what options might be about how you could reduce that risk," Dr Bloomfield said.
Pushed on if one of those options may be stopping flights, he said: "The Government will be considering a range of options and the Prime Minister will make announcements."
People coming to New Zealand from India don't travel here directly, but transfer through Dubai in the UAE. Dr Bloomfield said he would like to see the United Arab of Emirates flight continue to operate, pointing out it also connects people from other countries to Aotearoa.
In response to the high number of travellers arriving in the country from India with COVID-19, the ministry also assessed the validity of pre-departure tests being undertaken there, he said. Their evaluation suggested the results should continue to be accepted.
Dr Bloomfield believes it's most likely the travellers have become infected on their way to their departure point.