Coronavirus: New Zealand limits travel as Omicron causes alarm globally

New Zealand is moving a number of southern African countries onto the 'very high risk' country list in a bid to contain the spread of Omicron, Chris Hipkins has announced.

Those countries are: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique.

Hipkins said the "precautionary apporach" will "reduce the chance of Omicron entering New Zealand".

It comes after a public health risk assessment on Saturday afternoon evaluating the emerging evidence and risk to New Zealand from the new variant. That included discussions with officials in Australia, which has also blocked some travellers. Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield provided Hipkins with his assessment "a short time ago".

"This means that from 11:59pm Sunday 28 November only New Zealand citizens from these countries will be able to come here," Hipkins said.

"They will be required to stay in managed isolation for a full 14 day period and undergo testing. The extended MIQ requirement will also apply to those already in transit from these countries.

"The newer model of 7 days in managed isolation and 3 days at home for other returnees will continue – there is still good evidence this model is safe and provides a high level of protection against the virus entering out communities.

"I am also assured by the fact that the numbers of travellers we get from each of these countries is low."

Hipkins said it was the Government's understanding that Omicron is "still very much in its infancy" and is confident it hasn't entered New Zealand. Whole genome sequencing is carried out routinely and all recent MIQ cases have been Delta. 

"New Zealand remains in a very good position to prevent this variant entering the country and deal with it if it does appear at our border. Our MIQ facilities and frequent testing of arrivals continue to serve us well.

"Given the evolving situation, a cautious approach is warranted. Adding these countries to the very high risk country register is an appropriate and proportionate measure as more evidence is gathered globally on the Omicron variant."

Countries around the world have been shutting their borders again after the emergence of the highly transmissible coronavirus variant which is causing experts alarm due to the number of mutations. Whether vaccines will be effective against it is currently being explored. 

The United States earlier on Saturday moved to bars travellers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. However, it doesn't apply to US citizens or permanent residents.

Other nations to put in new measures include Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia and some European nations. Many are banning foreign travellers and making citizens isolate upon arrival.

Our border is already very tight, with entry limited to citizens, residents and those that need to come here for "critical" reasons.

We do, however, also have the 'very high risk' country list. The only travellers allowed from those nations are New Zealand citizens and their immediate family. It currently includes Brazil, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Papua New Guinea, but from early December will only include Papua New Guinea.

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said on Friday that the Government would "monitor closely any further developments" with the new variant. That could include adding countries to the 'very high-risk list' "if the advice came to us to do that".

The Ministry of Health on Saturday said it was "closely watching and monitoring evidence and countries' responses" to Omicron".

"We will advise on any potential impacts for New Zealand, noting that we remain in a good position to minimise the impact of any new variants with isolation and routine testing of international arrivals."