Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern deems overseas arrivals a "significant risk" despite no COVID-19 cases among vaccinated travellers from Australia since the Delta outbreak.
Her comments came after the Government announced that vaccinated international arrivals will be able to skip managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) from January 2022 and instead self-isolate for seven days.
However, it won't be in time for Christmas, and it will be staged. Vaccinated arrivals from Australia can skip MIQ from January 17, while Kiwis arriving from other countries can skip MIQ from February 14, and tourists from April 30.
The Government has already reduced the length of time arrivals must spend in state-run MIQ facilities from 14 days to seven. But National says vaccinated, COVID-free travellers from Australia should be able to enter New Zealand quarantine-free "now".
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins revealed in Parliament on Tuesday that none of the 2544 travellers from Australia since August 23 who were vaccinated tested positive. Just three did produce a positive result, but they were unvaccinated.
"There is no reason why the trans-Tasman bubble should not be open right now," says National's COVID-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop.
The Government is worried about the impact of even one case getting through. The Delta strain was transported to New Zealand in August via a traveller from Sydney, around the time when quarantine-free trans-Tasman travel was temporarily permitted.
"There is significant risk with international returnees if there are no border protocols in place at all and we do know that when we reopen there will be a large number looking to return home," Ardern told reporters on Wednesday.
"Keep in mind, in the past all of our returnees have been coming to Auckland. With the changes that we will be making, they will be returning to all parts of New Zealand, so we have a duty to make sure we do that very carefully and that we reduce cases."
Ardern said modelling she's seen shows tens of thousands of arrivals per week from Australia once the changes are in place.
"I don't think it's fair to extrapolate just from the numbers we have at the moment. We will expect a larger number to travel because there won't be the constraint of MIQ.
"Even with the requirement for self-isolation, we expect we could have as many as 60 cases as a result. Now look, we can manage that risk, but if you have no border requirements, it will be higher than that.
"Australia has been the highest demand group when we've put up the vouchers through our MIQ system, so we do expect a large number to come over even with that self-isolation requirement."
Kiwis desperate to get home for Christmas will have to wait until next year, despite experts such as Otago University epidemiologist Michael Baker pointing out that MIQ rooms would be better used isolating COVID-positive Aucklanders.
Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield revealed on Wednesday that vaccination is helping case numbers level off in Auckland. Yet vaccinated, COVID-free Kiwis in Australia are considered too risky to let in while more than 1500 positive cases in Auckland can isolate at home.
"What is the rationale for partly reopening the border to New Zealanders in Australia only in January 2022? Why can't it be done now?" Bishop said.
"National's petition to end MIQ is nearly at 100,000 people and continues to grow as people wake up to the stupidity of having thousands of people isolated at home with COVID in New Zealand while fully vaccinated travellers without COVID go into MIQ."
Hipkins said the measures won't be in place forever.
"The self-isolation requirement is going to have an impact on tourism, there's no question about that. We will only have that self-isolation requirement in place for as long as the public health situation justifies it.
"We don't have a timetable on that because that's going to depend on the nature and the shape of the outbreak from this point onwards."