COVID-19: Masks? Travel? Elimination? How opening up would look under National and ACT

If National and ACT were in charge, you'd be able to travel for Christmas, the elimination strategy would be either dropped or changed to suppression, and masks would still be required but it's not clear under what circumstances. 

Both parties have released their plans for opening New Zealand up to the world after more than a year of closed borders. ACT has congratulated National for its plan, so there appears to be mutual agreement on the proposed path. 

The main take-away from their plans is that vaccination against COVID-19 would remain the key to opening up. Both National and ACT have committed to quarantine-free travel for some people by Christmas, while the Government has not.

Travel under National and ACT

If National had its way, lockdowns would no longer be used to curb COVID-19 outbreaks when 70-75 percent of the eligible population is vaccinated. 

We've still got some way to go with just 47 percent of the population fully vaccinated, though many people are waiting six weeks to get their second dose. 

Once we reach the milestone of 85-90 percent of the eligible population, a 'traffic light' system would begin to operate for travel under National, similar to the UK. This would help reduce the huge demand on managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ). 

Travel for non-vaccinated non-citizens would be banned. Non-vaccinated Kiwis could travel, but would be required to spend 14 days in MIQ. 

Vaccinated arrivals would not be required to be isolated if they travelled from a low-risk 'green' zone, such as Western Australia, the Cook Islands, Taiwan,and most Pacific countries.

They would need proof of a negative test result before departure and proof of an approved vaccination - Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Janssen. A saliva-based PCR test upon arrival would also be required within 12 hours.

Vaccinated arrivals from more risky spots, like NSW, Victoria, Singapore, and the UK, would need to self-isolate at home for seven days. It would be enforced via spot checks by public health and police, fines, and possible mandatory use of an app. 

COVID-19: Masks? Travel? Elimination? How opening up would look under National and ACT
COVID-19: Masks? Travel? Elimination? How opening up would look under National and ACT

People would be allowed to self-isolate with other people in their bubbles. It could be undertaken at home or in hotels, the same as in Taiwan. 

National also wants to build up to 1500 permanent quarantine units and associated facilities outside of urban Auckland and close to the international airport and health and security workforce.

This purpose-built community would open progressively from early to mid-2022. The estimated build cost would be about $200 million, excluding the land, and excluding ongoing operational running consents.

The units would have a 50-70 year life span. They could be transported and changed to alternative use in the future, such as refugee resettlement accommodation or transitional community housing. 

"We foresee the need for purpose-built quarantine facilities for the next three to five years."

ACT wants quarantine-free travel resumed from November when it's expected that everyone in New Zealand will have had the opportunity to be vaccinated. 

"At that time, the vaccine rollout should be deemed complete, and MIQ requirements to be dropped in time for people from low-risk countries who've met suitable testing and private isolation requirements should be allowed to return to the country for Christmas."

National leader Judith Collins.
National leader Judith Collins. Photo credit: Getty Images

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in Parliament she would hesitate to do that, because hospitals could be overrun with the un-vaccinated. 

ACT would still require recent arrivals who "may" have COVID-19, due to having travelled to places where there are outbreaks, to isolate. 

"They would be required to isolate at home or similar, with the isolation period depending on their test history, including tests taken before travel, and the risk associated with the place they travelled from."

Those who test positive or "suspect they have a case" would be required to isolate to prevent further transmission.

When Newshub asked ACT to define a person who "suspects they have a case", a spokesperson said: "We mean someone who has reason to believe they might be infected, that includes someone who is symptomatic, awaiting testing, or in the household of a case."

ACT would require these people to isolate, according to existing protocols and penalties, with random police checks. Those isolating for their own protection would not be sanctioned.

Masks under National and ACT

Masks were introduced to COVID-19 restrictions as evidence emerged that the Delta variant spreads mainly by aerosol transmission. 

Masks are required by the Government at each alert level, though only mandated on public transport and flights at level 1. But National and ACT's plans don't mention masks much. 

There are two mentions of masks in National's plan. 

"Mask wearing" is listed under "tools" to manage COVID-19, but there is no specification of when masks would need to be worn. It might be that National would continue with the Government's mask mandates, but it's not clarified. 

Masks are also listed under the heading 'Pursuing elimination without nationwide lockdowns'.

"Community health measures - Wearing masks, sanitising and improving ventilation to reduce the spread of COVID-19."

ACT leader David Seymour.
ACT leader David Seymour. Photo credit: Getty Images

There is one mention of masks in ACT's plan. 

"Clear rules of the game can reduce transmission, social distancing and masking should be promoted on the basis that they reduce transmission rather than in an arbitrary fashion."

Newshub asked for clarification on what circumstances ACT would require masks.

"Mask mandates would depend on the circumstances. There might be good evidence that masks work to reduce transmission on transport, but only if they are high quality N95 masks."

Elimination under National and ACT

National and ACT seem to be on the same page when it comes to the Government's COVID-19 elimination strategy - both parties think we should switch to harm reduction once everyone has had the opportunity to be vaccinated. 

The Government has hinted at intentions to do this, but has not officially announced a plan to move away from elimination and to accept some COVID-19 in the community. 

"Once New Zealand hits 85 percent of people over 12 being fully vaccinated, we believe New Zealand needs to move away from the elimination strategy we have followed to date," National's plan says. 

"Vaccination at that level would give us one of the highest levels of vaccination in the world. Combined with sensible public health measures, we can then pivot to a "vigorous suppression" strategy."

ACT, who don't use the word elimination because 'eradication' is what it "should properly be called", agrees that the time has come to move on from the Government's strategy. 

"New Zealand has had a stated strategy of elimination for the last 18 months. This strategy made sense during the period that vaccines were not available. However, the elimination strategy did see periodic outbreaks resulting in lockdowns, business closures, 60,000 more people dependent on a benefit and a doubling of New Zealand's debt. 

"Delta has now fundamentally changed the game and many experts believe elimination is impossible. In any event, lockdowns are not a sustainable long-term strategy and we can't keep doing them forever. The team of five million needs to see the game plan from here.

"We must move to a policy of harm minimisation. This policy should aim to reduce each of transmission, hospitalisation, and death from COVID at the least possible cost of overall wellbeing."