World Health Organisation advises against COVID-19 travel restrictions despite Omicron

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is advising against COVID-19 travel restrictions, describing them as a "heavy burden on lives and livelihoods". 

In recently updated advice on its website, the United Nations branch said blanket travel bans "will not prevent the international spread" of COVID-19 and "they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods".  

"Lift or ease international travel bans as they do not provide added value and continue to contribute to the economic and social stress experienced," the WHO advice reads. 

"The failure of travel restrictions introduced after the detection and reporting of the Omicron variant to limit international spread of Omicron demonstrates the ineffectiveness of such measures over time."

While the UK plans to drop nearly all coronavirus restrictions and Australia has removed quarantine rules for the vaccinated, New Zealand still requires international arrivals to spend 10 days in a state-run managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facility. 

The Government in November announced that on January 17, Kiwis arriving from Australia would be able to skip MIQ and isolate at home instead. But this was delayed until the end of February due to the threat of Omicron

New Zealand has so far dodged an Omicron outbreak, but the variant has been detected in a handful of cases in Auckland and Palmerston North, so it's only a matter of time before the highly transmissible variant spreads. 

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Photo credit: Getty Images

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern earlier this week encouraged Kiwis to get a booster vaccination shot, warning that an eventual Omicron outbreak was "a case of when, not if". 

She confirmed on Thursday that lockdowns will not be used to curb the spread of Omicron, but all of New Zealand will be shifted to the 'red' traffic light setting in the event of an outbreak, meaning gatherings will be capped at 100 and hospitality guests must be seated and separated. 

ACT leader David Seymour says the Government should listen to WHO. 

"The dates for reconnecting with the world can't keep shifting to delay the inevitable. The Government should be clear that once Omicron's here, the costs of MIQ far outweigh any benefits and allow home isolation for people entering New Zealand immediately.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty Images

"It doesn't make sense to force Kiwis through MIQ when there is already widespread community transmission of Omicron.

"The goal must be minimising hospitalisations and deaths from COVID-19 with a laser-like focus on protecting the vulnerable."

But Ardern has expressed concern about international arrivals "seeding" cases in the community. 

"We need to keep in mind that all of our health experts, our epidemiologists, talk about the fact that the more cases you seed into the community, the greater the risk of large-scale outbreaks," she said in November

"Once you're allowing back New Zealand citizens where there is no limit on the numbers, that could be up to 40,000 people a week. So if you don't have a system that's able to adequately manage home isolation, that is potentially a large number of cases in the community."

Ardern doesn't want New Zealand to end up like Australia, where COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing thanks to the highly transmissible Omicron variant. 

New South Wales reported 30,825 new cases on Thursday and 25 deaths, while neighbouring Victoria registered 21,966 new cases and 15 deaths. 

But avoiding an Omicron outbreak by restricting travel comes at a cost. Kiwis stuck in Australia were relying on a release of MIQ room vouchers this week, but it was cancelled due to too much pressure on the system. Now, all they can do is wait while the Government decides if it will definitely go ahead with the plan to allow home-isolation in March. 

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins couldn't provide a date for when vouchers for March and April will be available. 

"I think what people want to know is whether or not they will need to go into MIQ when they come home in March or April and at this point we haven't got a very clear answer for that," he told reporters. 

"We want to provide people with as much certainty and clarity as we can, but it is still a very uncertain time."

But he said the Government is committed to shifting to a home-isolation model for returnees. 

"We acknowledge we will be moving to a self-isolation model. The question of what exactly the date is, that's the question for us at the moment."