As it happened: Reconnecting New Zealanders to the World - Jacinda Ardern, experts on next steps in COVID-19 response

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has outlined how the Government plans to respond to advice on how to reconnect New Zealand to the rest of the world over the next six months.

The Prime Minister delivered a speech at the Reconnecting New Zealanders to the World Forum in Wellington on Thursday, after a discussion with public health experts including Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield. 

The Government has responded to the expert advice of the Strategic COVID-19 Public Health Advisory Group led by Professor Sir David Skegg on how to approach the reopening of New Zealand's borders.

Jacinda Ardern confirmed:

  • vaccines will be available to all Kiwis from September 1
  • there will now be a six week gap before first and second dose of vaccine, rather than 21 days
  • the Government will trial self-isolation for vaccinated returning Kiwis later this year
  • quarantine-free travel will be introduced for fully vaccinated travellers from low risk countries next year
As it happened: Reconnecting New Zealanders to the World - Jacinda Ardern, experts on next steps in COVID-19 response

The recommendations:

  • phased re-opening of border
  • high vaccine uptake before the border can be safely opened due to more infections Delta variant
  • risk based factors need to be taken into account at the border such as vaccination status and COVID-19 prevalence in countries visited
  • the elimination strategy should remain

These live updates have finished. 

Sir David Skegg, chair of the Strategic COVID-19 Public Health Advisory Group.
Sir David Skegg, chair of the Strategic COVID-19 Public Health Advisory Group. Photo credit: Newshub

11:56am - Sir Brian Roche said the number of unvaccinated border workers, particularly those at the ports, is an unsustainable risk. 

"For every gap we have, we expose the community."

11:50am - ACT leader David Seymour weighed in on the Reconnecting New Zealanders forum. 

"New Zealanders are desperate to hear the Prime Minister's plan to navigate our post-COVID future. They're instead being forced to sit through an hour-long show featuring a cast of Government apologists."

11:43am - Business leader Rob Fyfe says he would have liked the Government to take more opportunity to bring in skilled people to New Zealand, during a time when the country looks attractive. 

But he understands the health security has become a "marketable" aspect, and so it's all about balancing risk. 

There is an opportunity, however, to make the MIQ booking system better and more "equitable", he says. 

11:41am - Business leader Rob Fyfe says we're in the "honey-moon phase", and that it could get "tougher" next year with inflation on the rise. 

11:33am - Sir David Skegg says it's a good thing that political parties in New Zealand seem to have relatively similar views on responding to COVID-19. 

11:28am - Sir David Skegg says New Zealand already has a lot more population coming through MIQ than Australia does, relative to population. 

Sir David says rather than hotels, it's an issue of staffing, as the Prime Minister said. But he agreed that it needs to be more "equitable", and that we cannot continue to have people sitting on a website hoping for a spot. 

11:24am - Sir David Skegg says the critical aspect of the self-isolation pilot is that people must isolate alone or with those who they travelled with. 

He said it will be "challenging", especially given that people need to get food, so they'll have to visit the supermarket or come into contact with another person at some point. 

11:21am - COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says the Government is working through a number of options to expand the capacity of managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ). 

Options include purchasing facilities or establishing a purpose-built one, he said, but no decisions have been made yet. 

11:17am - If there is a Delta outbreak, Ardern says Kiwis should prepare for alert level 4 lockdown coming with little warning. But she said there is never any reason for people to panic-buy.

She said the best thing to do is keep a mask handy, use the COVID Tracer app, and get vaccinated. 

11:13am - Ardern says the announcement that a six week gap will now be required between the first and second dose of Pfizer jab, means there is more capacity to get people in for their first dose sooner. 

11:09am - Ardern says New Zealanders overseas who want to come home, should expect that the Government will require them to be vaccinated to come home. 

Organisations and businesses will be invited to participate in the trial at the end of the year for self-isolation. 

11:07am - On the trans-tasman bubble, Ardern says it's proved to be difficult to open up to them state-by-state, because of how COVID-19 cases have often spread across state borders. 

The trans-Tasman bubble is currently paused. 

11:03am - On the vaccine passport plan, Ardern says there are no final decisions yet on what vaccines will be approved for it, but it's safe to say Pfizer will be part of it. 

11am - "There is no room for error," Ardern says, to those who are worried about the Government trialling self-isolation for travellers at home. 

She says they will have to have an isolation plan approved by the Ministry of Health, and they will not be able to isolate with people who they have not travelled with. 

"It will be very tightly run."

10:57am - Ardern, speaking to reporters, says she understands how Kiwis want certainty about when they can travel again, and return home. 

But she says there will not be "large amounts" of MIQ space available, so the Government will start phasing in self-isolation at home, with a pilot starting in October through to December with a small number. 

The first quarter of next year it could begin, for vaccinated travellers. 

10:53am - Ardern confirmed the Government will be establishing a system to confirm a traveller's vaccination status.

"A digital tool is being developed by border agencies to help assess the level of risk of travellers to and from New Zealand. This is a traveller health declaration system, and will require travellers to upload information before they arrive in New Zealand, such as their vaccination information.

"This will be both for New Zealanders going overseas, as well as people coming into the country. In the short term, a manual solution will be developed to allow passengers to arrive in New Zealand, when border settings are ready. In the future, this will be a fully digital platform that will simplify the traveller experience."

In addition, the Government is developing a new work programme with airports and airlines over the next eight weeks to develop options for how to support a safe reopening of our air border, similar to the work they did together to prepare for Quarantine Free Travel with Australia. 

"The group will focus on the pre-travel, en-route, arrival, and domestic stages of the overall travel and border process. The outcome will include information and options to inform government decisions on how the system might be operationalised in a way that is as safe, streamlined and coordinated as possible."

10:40am - When can you get vaccinated?

People aged 50+ from Friday 13 August

People aged 40+ from Wednesday 18 August

People aged 30+ from Wednesday 25 August

All eligible ages from 1 September 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivering her speech.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivering her speech. Photo credit: Newshub

10:37am - QUICK FACT: In total, 848,406 people are now fully vaccinated in New Zealand, and a further 1,444,895 have had their first dose. 

10:34am - Ardern tells the Reconnecting New Zealanders to the World forum the reason why the Government wants to continue with an elimination strategy.

"It's the view of Cabinet that for the next period of the pandemic, that means maintaining our Elimination, or 'stamp it out', strategy.

"While the pandemic continues to rage overseas, and the virus continues to change and mutate, the best thing we can do is lock in the gains achieved to date while keeping our options open and giving ourselves choices.

"And a careful approach that says "there won't be zero cases, but when there is one in the community, we crush it" is the best way to maintain our normal lives while we monitor the twists and turns of COVID 19 over the next six months.

"One of the risks we all face currently, is that in an environment where we have partially vaccinated populations, a variant that is more dangerous and vaccine resistant may well emerge. We all hope that won't happen.

"But if we choose to change our strategy too early, and we see an even more problematic version of COVID emerge, there is no going back.

"Ultimately our response to COVID so far means we have more choices than many other countries as we enter the next phase, and our plan needs to take account of that and our desire not to go backwards from where we are.

"So principle number one will remain - maintaining our elimination strategy to stamp out the virus, so we can maintain our hard won gains and keep our options open."

10:26am - The Prime Minister is discussing how the Delta variant of COVID-19 has changed the game in terms of reopening New Zealand to the world. 

"I recall in a meeting recently, Professor Skegg laying out the difference between Delta and the early iterations of COVID 19. You can see it in the way that it has behaved in Australia and beyond," she says. 

"Delta is a game changer in our risk calculation. It could be devastating if it took hold in New Zealand before we have high rates of vaccination.

"Evidence from China suggests that, with the Delta variant, the time interval between when a person picks up the virus and when they become infectious themselves is significantly shorter. That it is up to three times more infectious, meaning that one case is now on average passing it on to nine others.

"What comes through in the evidence, and what you will have heard today, is that Delta may be the variant of the day, but it won't be the only one."

10:23am - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is speaking about the Government's just-released plan to start opening up New Zealand to the world. 

"Since the pandemic began 1 in 1675 New Zealanders have had a confirmed case of COVID, compared to 1 in 9 in the US or Sweden, and we have had two-thirds fewer cases than Australia per capita," she says. 

"If New Zealand had been hit as hard as the UK or US, nearly 10,000 Kiwis would have died. That's the population of Te Puke."

10:19am - The Government has unveiled its plan to start opening up New Zealand to the world. 

  • Vaccines will be available to all Kiwis from September 1
  • The Government will trial self-isolation for vaccinated returning Kiwis later this year
  • Quarantine-free travel will be introduced for fully vaccinated travellers from low risk countries next year

Read more here.

10:13am - Question about vaccine boosters. 

Prof Baker says vaccines are a limited resource, and before the world thinks about booster shots, that should be taken into consideration. 

Dr Bloomfield says, "We are in active conversations" with Pfizer. 

10:09am - Business leader Rob Fyfe says he expects vaccine passports and "vaccine status" will become prominent in society across the world, and New Zealand will need to catch up. 

10:06am - Sir David Skegg says telling Kiwis the border could start opening up from next year is a good incentive for them to get vaccinated this year. 

The Government has promised that every Kiwi will get the opportunity to be vaccinated this year. Currently, people aged 55 and above, as well as those with underlying health conditions, are eligible. 

10:04am - Sir David Skegg says while there are certainly those who have a lot to lose in terms of having the borders closed, such as tourism operators in Queenstown, there is also a lot to lose in opening up and risking a large outbreak. 

He says ultimately, it's up to the Government to make those decisions, and strike the right balance. 

10:02am - Dr Api Talemaitoga says he prefers the term "comunity immunity" to "herd immunity", because it helps people to better understand why it's important to get vaccinated. 

10am - Dr Bloomfield says "watch this space" when asked about vaccinating 12 to 15 year olds before the summer through schools. 

9:57am - Sir David Skegg says people who don't trust vaccines need to think about the consequences of a large outbreak. 

If there was a large outbreak in New Zealand, he says, hospitals would be streched and treatment for cancer would be compromised because of demand for health services - similar to what's happened in the UK. 

9:56am - Dr Bloomfield says most people, if they're educated about the vaccine by people they trust, are willing to get a jab. He said therefore, it's so important people are educated about the vaccine by people they trust. 

9:53am - Professor Michael Baker says the vaccine is highly effective at preventing serious illness and death. 

But the vaccine is "not succeeding as well as we hoped" at preventing transmission, he says. 

Prof Baker says some people still need to be convinced about vaccines, and he's urging them to rethink their position.  

9:51am - Sir David Skegg says the outbreak in Australia is a lesson for New Zealand, in how quickly the Delta variant can spread. 

He reminds us that the Delta variant is in New Zealand - it's in managed isolation facilities. But, it's not the community, so we need to remain vigilant. 

9:48am - Dr Api Talemaitoga says education about vaccines is vital, and it needs to come from "trusted" places like schools and churches and community places, where people feel comfortable. 

9:47am - Dr Maia Brewerton, speaking about the vaccine roll-out, says the focus needs to be on reaching out to those who may not have access to it. 

She said there's a difference between people who don't want the vaccine, and those who may not have access to those services. 

9:41am - Dr Bloomfield says "we are getting on with it", referring to planning an opening up of New Zealand to the world. 

But he's convinced New Zealand should maintain an elimination strategy, as we have with the likes of measles. 

"There's no reason to not think that's the best approach for COVID-19 into the future," he tells the panel. 

But, he acknolwedges it should be continually be reviewed. 

9:39am - Sir Brian Roche says we have "time on our side" to plan for a phased re-opening of the border. 

But he says we need to "strengthen every access point in the country", to avoid outbreak risks, perhaps a nod to the Tauranga port scare. 

9:37am - Business leader Rob Fyfe says he's pleased with the advice from the Strategic COVID-19 Public Health Advisory Group. He says he understands why the Government has been careful about opening up, especially when we look at Australia. 

But he says it's very important that everyone gets vaccinated, so that we don't have to keep going into lockdowns - because lockdowns, he says, are what destroy business confidence. 

9:35am - Professor Michael Baker says during the panel that New Zealand could not handle a larged COVID-19 outbreak. 

He says an outbreak would be an opportunity to rapidly expand vaccines, similar to the way the United Kingdom has. 

9:32am - A panel discussion is happening now with:

  • Sir Brian Roche
  • Sir David Skegg 
  • Rob Fyfe
  • Professor Michael Baker 
  • Dr Maia Brewerton 
  • Dr Api Talemaitoga  
  • Dr Ashley Bloomfield

9:30am - Sir David explained how important it is for every Kiwi to get vaccinated if we hope to open up to the world safely.

9:27am - Sir David says the Strategic COVID-19 Public Health Advisory Group recommends expanding managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) so that it's not so restrictive. 

9:23am - Can we maintain elimination?

Sir David says variants like Delta will make it more difficult. 

If we give up, many New Zealanders will end up in hospital, and a "sizeable number" will die, but far fewer than would have died if we hadn't followed an elimination strategy. 

He said the Strategic COVID-19 Public Health Advisory Group considered whether it was still viable to continue with the elimination strategy, and decided that yes, it was. 

9:21am - Sir David made a reference to the Winston Churchill portrait debate between National and the Greens. 

He says in the same way Churchill couldn't have foreseen what happened during World War 2, it's difficult for the Government to predict what will happen with COVID-19. 

9:20am - Sir David says he feels sorry for young people who are growing up during a pandemic.

"The world has changed and some things will never be the same," he says. 

"The virus is still winning the war."

He says other countries are letting us down.

"They either never tried or threw in the towel on elimination."

Sir David says the "enemy keeps adapting... making control far more difficult". 

Delta is at least twice as infectious as the original virus that originated in Wuhan, he says. 

9:15am - Sir David Skegg, chair of the Strategic COVID-19 Public Health Advisory Group, and an epidemiologist, is delivering his overview of reconnecting New Zealand to the world. 

Sir David says while some people want tighter restrictions, others want the borders flung open, so it's all about striking the right balance. 

He said "fortunately, it's the politicians who have to make the difficult decisions". 

He said reopening will be an "iterative process" over the coming months. 

The pandemic is only getting worse overseas, he said, and while New Zealand has handled it better than almost any other nation, we need to carefully navigate the next steps. 

9:11am - Dr Verrall said it shouldn’t surprise anyone that opening up the border will be gradual. But she said there will come a time when outbreaks become less severe.

"The difficult truth is we can't provide absolute certainty."

9:10am - Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall, an infectious diseases expert, has delivered a speech to open the event. 

She said the Strategic COVID-19 Public Health Advisory Group's advice has been "incredibly helpful" to help the Government navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Dr Verrall said Kiwis have enjoyed some of the fewest restrictions in the world. But she said New Zealand's response has never stood still. 

She said managed isolation has continuously been improved, though it has been criticised for locking New Zealanders out of the country. 

She also talked about how New Zealand is one of only a few countries where the Pfizer jab is being offered to everyone for free. 

9:05am - Dame Juliet Gerrard from Auckland University, the Prime Minister's chief science advisor, has opened the event, followed by a waiata. 

9am - ACT leader David Seymour is sceptical about whether the event will produce anything tangible in terms of opening up New Zealand to the world. 

"Today's big announcement will feel like Give Us A Clue: COVID Edition," Seymour predicts. "The Ardern Government will do what it does best, an announcement, with a cast of characters over a livestream.

"ACT predicts that the production values of this morning's show will be outstanding, but New Zealanders will emerge with no more tangible information about what the Government's plans are to deal with COVID, because they don't know themselves.

"What the Government should have done is formed a multi-disciplinary team that works across government and private sector lines to come up with scenarios and options for responding to COVID over the next year. It should release all the advice publicly as a matter of course.

"That would be a response worthy of New Zealand. Unfortunately we are 18 months into a crisis and the Government's basic response is unchanged."

8:40am - University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker told The AM Show he fears Kiwis have been lulled into a false sense of security when it comes to COVID-19, because we haven't had the waves of death and illness seen in most other countries. 

"I think in some ways in New Zealand we haven't seen how devastating this pandemic is," he said.  "Hopefully people understand that."

New Zealand hasn't had any community transmission of the disease in more than five months, but overseas about 10,000 people are dying every day.

The number of Kiwis using the COVID Tracer app remains stubbornly low however, and around half of public transport users in Auckland aren't following mandatory rules to wear masks, despite public transport being a key vector in the spread of the virus here last year, and overseas.

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