Sir John Key's demand for reopening date 'unrealistic' - former Air NZ boss Rob Fyfe

A prominent business leader and adviser to the Government on COVID-19 says former Prime Minister Sir John Key's call for a firm border reopening date is "unrealistic". 

The Government earlier this week laid out a roadmap to slowly reopen the country once everyone in New Zealand had had the chance to get vaccinated. Trials involving letting a few vaccinated travellers self-isolate will be held later this year, before potentially being rolled out early in 2022.

But Sir John on Friday told Newstalk ZB some Kiwis "will not take the vaccine unless they really, really know the borders are opening", calling for a set date. 

So far 21.6 percent of Kiwis 16 or over have got both jabs, and from September 1 anyone will be able to book theirs, earlier than expected. The vaccine programme has ramped up significantly in the past couple of weeks, with nearly 50,000 doses now being administered a day. 

Rob Fyfe, former chief executive of Air New Zealand and Government COVID-19 business adviser told Newshub Nation on Saturday it was "unrealistic" to expect the Government to set a reopening date because there is so much uncertainty around how the pandemic will play out over the next six months.

"Two months ago I was saying 'before Christmas', and Delta comes along," he told host Simon Shepherd. 

"When we're coming to make this decision… it's highly probable it's not Delta anymore. It's going to be another new variant, we don't even know the characteristics of that variant. The enemy keeps changing their tactics right, so you just have to adapt accordingly."

Delta was first detected in India late last year. It's at least twice as contagious as previous strains of the virus, and is able to infect fully vaccinated people. 

The current vaccines were developed to work against the original strain that emerged from China 18 months ago, and while they still offer strong protection against serious illness, herd immunity appears to be no longer possible. One Kiwi study said it would take 97 percent coverage to stop outbreaks reaching the vulnerable - kids too young to be vaccinated and people who can't be vaccinated for genuine health reasons - while other experts have said it's impossible. 

"Delta has come along and changed the game, you know," said Fyfe, who was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit at the new year for services to business and tourism. 

"It replicates so quickly that if it gets in, we'd have to lock down. I don't want to see more lockdowns. If I've got a choice between delaying quarantine-free travel and going into more lockdowns, I'll take a delay on quarantine-free travel." 

Rob Fyfe.
Rob Fyfe. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

He said he has confidence in the vaccine rollout, and defended the Government's reluctance to set a coverage target for reopening, as some other countries have and the National Party has asked for, fearing it would discourage some people from getting vaccinated.

"The fear is if you set a target then people get an option - 'I can be a part of whatever it is, the 80 percent or the 20 percent'. You need everyone to want to be vaccinated. So I understand the logic of not setting a target less than 100 percent, it just allows people to opt out."

Despite the lack of a set date, Fyfe said it's pretty clear from the Government's plans when in 2022 it's likely to be, provided another variant doesn't emerge. 

"The first quarter - it's not a date, but there's not a lot of leeway in the first quarter. Not too much happens in January, so you're kind of saying it's going to happen in February."

The travel bubble with Australia is likely doomed, he said, likely to be superseded by the new scheme before our neighbours get their spiralling outbreak under control

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