Quarantine-free travel with Australia will be suspended for eight weeks as several states battle outbreaks of the highly transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced on Friday.
From 11:59pm on Friday, Australians will no longer be able to enter New Zealand quarantine-free. The suspension will remain in place for at least the next eight weeks, Ardern confirmed during a press conference on Friday afternoon, alongside Hipkins and Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
The pause will be reviewed after the preliminary eight-week period. The assessment of the pause will take into account whether the particularly severe outbreak in New South Wales has been contained, Ardern said, as well as overall case numbers and whether new infections are linked or from unknown sources. Any amendments to the pause will be made ensuring that New Zealand's elimination strategy is "not at risk", she added.
Cabinet had convened on Thursday to discuss the state of the trans-Tasman travel arrangement after New South Wales recorded 124 new cases earlier that afternoon, then it's highest number in a single day. The decision to suspend quarantine-free travel was made following updated public health advice from officials, Ardern said, based on the escalating outbreaks across the ditch.
For the next seven days, managed return flights for New Zealanders will be departing from all states and territories. Travellers will need proof of a negative test prior to departure, but won't be required to enter a managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facility on arrival in New Zealand - if they are flying from Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia, ACT and Norfolk Island.
However, those who have been in New South Wales will be required to complete at least 14 days in MIQ. Those who have been in Victoria must self-isolate upon their arrival in New Zealand and return a negative day-three test.
After that seven-day window, anyone returning from Australia will be required to complete the mandatory 14 days in MIQ on arrival.
With spaces in the MIQ system already extremely limited and in high demand, health officials are urging eligible New Zealanders to return home without delay.
"There are now multiple outbreaks, and in differing stages of containment, that have forced three states into lockdown. The health risk to New Zealanders from these cases is increasing," Ardern said.
"We've always said that our response would evolve as the virus evolved. This is not a decision we have taken lightly, but it is the right decision to keep New Zealanders safe.
"Now is the time for a suspension to ensure New Zealanders aren't put at undue risk from COVID-19 and to ensure we retain our hard won gains. Our team of five million has worked hard to put us in a strong position both health-wise and economically. We will not risk that.
"We've acted with an abundance of caution at every turn, and we will continue to do so."
Hipkins said the Government acknowledges the frustration and inconvenience that comes with any disruption to trans-Tasman travel.
"Given the high level of transmissibility of the Delta variant, and the fact that there are now multiple community clusters, it is the right thing to do to keep COVID-19 out of New Zealand," Hipkins said.
"The worsening situation in New South Wales, seepage across state borders and our consistently cautious approach to prevent COVID-19 from entering the New Zealand community, we are confident this is the right action to take."
It's hoped the eight-week suspension will give Australia time to bring its current outbreaks under control, while health officials in New Zealand monitor the situation, assess developments in other countries, and consider different travel arrangements that will ensure the safety of New Zealanders.
Ardern confirmed that the Government does want quarantine-free travel to resume.
"We remain committed to it, and when I spoke to [Australian] Prime Minister Scott Morrison this morning, I conveyed this view directly. But it must be safe."
Quarantine-free travel from New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia had already been suspended prior to the nationwide pause, as the states grapple to control their respective outbreaks of the virus.
However, travel from ACT, Northern Territory, Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia was still permitted.
A staggering 136 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in New South Wales on Friday - the highest number in a single day since the outbreak began. Of those, 53 were infectious while in the community.
South Australia's cluster also grew on Thursday after two new cases were detected, bringing its outbreak to 14.
Earlier on Friday, Victorian health officials announced that 14 new locally acquired cases - all linked to the current outbreaks - had been detected. However, 10 of the 14 cases were in quarantine throughout their entire infectious period.
Managed return flights
Managed return green flights - without a requirement to enter MIQ on arrival - will initially be facilitated for travellers in low-to-medium risk states from 11:59pm on Friday, July 23 to 11:59pm on Friday, July 30.
Travellers from Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia, ACT and Norfolk Island can return home on a green flight subject to the below public health criteria:
a negative pre-departure test, taken within 72-hours of their intended travel to New Zealand
have not been in a location of interest in the past 14 days
are not symptomatic at the time of travel
are not a contact of a COVID-19 case.
Eligible people from Victoria - or travellers returning from other states or territories who have been in Victoria - can also return provided they:
adhere to lockdown measures in Victoria
self-isolate upon return to New Zealand and get a test at day three
travel to the airport wearing facemasks and by safe travel - not public transport.
Eligible people from New South Wales will continue to return on existing managed return flights. Returnees on these flights will be required to enter MIQ for at least 14 days on arrival in New Zealand.
Travel on all managed return flights will be limited to:
New Zealand citizens and holders of residence class visas
holders of temporary visas and Australian citizens, who last departed New Zealand after April 5, 2021
holders of current permanent residence visas (including a resident return visa) issued by the Government of Australia, who last departed New Zealand after April 5, 2021
relevant family members of people listed in the above categories. A relevant family member is a spouse, civil union partner, or de facto partner, a dependent child, or a parent of a dependent child. Parent, in relation to a dependent child, means a person on whom the child is dependent.
All travellers are asked to monitor themselves closely for any symptoms of COVID-19 after arrival in the country and to diligently keep contact tracing records using the NZ COVID Tracer app or another form of diary.
Likewise, anyone with symptoms should stay at home, get tested, and remain in isolation until a negative test is returned.
For more information, visit the Unite Against COVID-19 website.