COVID-19 Christmas travel: Jacinda Ardern defends forcing overseas arrivals to quarantine but not Aucklanders

As Christmas creeps up, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern denies it would be inconsistent to allow vaccinated Aucklanders to travel the country but still force overseas arrivals to quarantine. 

On the day Ardern announced the Government's new COVID Protection Framework, or 'traffic light' system, to replace the alert levels, she assured Aucklanders they'd be able to see family and friends across New Zealand for Christmas.  

"Absolutely," she said. "We've even modelled that even at the current rates that Auckland would move before, absolutely before Christmas. But what we want is for them to move as soon as possible." 

But for Kiwis aborad coming home to see family for Christmas, they will still have to spend seven days in a managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facility followed by a further three days of isolation at home, before they can be free.

"The way that we are treating everyone who comes into New Zealand is the same as essentially what we're looking to treat contacts of a COVID case," Ardern told The AM Show on Monday. 

"Someone who's looking to travel out of Auckland at a boundary, that's not an individual who we are treating as having come into contact with a COVID case."

Ardern insisted it's fair, despite just four cases detected in MIQ on Monday, compared to 156 cases identified in Auckland. 

"If that person travelling from Auckland was the contact of a COVID case, then of course they would have public health restrictions," she said. 

"Yes, we are looking to find ways to enable people to move safely at Christmas time, and it does include looking at things like vaccination measures and testing. 

"But when it comes to people who are coming in from overseas and the consistency of how we treat them, we are essentially looking to treat them as people who have possibly come into contact with COVID."

She pointed to the UK as an example of risk. The UK recorded 41,278 coronavirus cases on Sunday, and a further 166 deaths. 

"The UK - currently 50,000 cases a day. You can understand why we would treat an individual coming out of the UK [as high-risk].

"Particularly given the high risk of travel, we know that some of those flights coming in do have a reasonable number of cases coming through, so we treat that person as if they've come into contact. 

"That's why they now spend a shortened period in MIQ the same way we would treat someone who comes into contact with COVID in New Zealand, and then they're able to travel home with a short stint of self-isolation and then be released."

Ardern did not address why vaccinated arrivals from less high-risk areas, such as Australia's Queensland where no cases have been recorded in the last 24 hours, couldn't be treated the same as Aucklanders. 

Australia now allows vaccinated New Zealanders with proof of a negative test to enter the country quarantine-free, but New Zealand has not reciprocated.

The new traffic light framework comes into force once 90 percent of the eligible population is vaccinated across each District Health Board. But since Auckland has been in lockdown for months and is close to reaching the target with 88 percent of the eligible population fully vaccinated, it could enter the traffic light framework sooner.

Once the traffic light framework comes into force, what freedoms people have will be determined by vaccine certificates. For example, when Auckland enters the 'red' light, hospitality venues can open with up to 100 fully vaccinated people, but businesses that choose not to use vaccine certificates must remain contactless. 

It's unclear if regions that reach 90 percent will be held back from entering the traffic light system by other regions that haven't reached it yet. 

Cabinet minister David Parker seemed to suggest last week that regions could be sealed off if they lag behind, but it hasn't been confirmed.