COVID-19 Omicron: Kiwis arriving from Australia can skip MIQ from February 28 under strict conditions

Fully vaccinated Kiwis arriving from Australia can skip MIQ from February 28 with evidence of a negative pre-departure test and the ability to self-isolate for seven days. 

But they must travel straight to their accommodation without stopping off, be picked up by someone wearing a mask, and cannot have any visitors or go anywhere unless under approved circumstances. 

The requirements, announced by COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins on Tuesday, come two weeks after the Government announced its staged reopening of the border - phasing out state-run managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ).

It also comes at a time when the number of people crossing New Zealand's border is the lowest since 1971. There were 826,400 border crossings in 2021 compared to 14.2 million in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Travel bubbles with Australia and the Cook Islands in the middle of the year saw numbers lift, before travel bubbles popped in mid-August," Stats NZ population indicators manager Tehseen Islam said on Tuesday. 

With mandatory MIQ being phased out, travellers will no longer need to secure a room via the lottery system - a system that's helped keep the country relatively free of COVID-19, but also caused heartache for Kiwis across the globe unable to get home. 

From February 28, the first phase of the border reopening begins, starting with Kiwis and other eligible travellers from Australia. They can skip MIQ as long as they are fully vaccinated with two doses, return a negative test before flying, and spend seven days in self-isolation, taking two rapid antigen tests.

The vaccination requirement will apply to travellers aged 17 years or older.    

How will it work?

Travellers will have the option of three types of pre-departure tests: a traditional nasal PCR test within 48 hours of flying, or a supervised rapid antigen (RAT) or loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) test within 24 hours.

"Allowing use of RATs recognises that PCR tests are difficult to get in many countries, with the lower sensitivity mitigated by halving the time people could get infected after being tested," Hipkins said. 

"Adding a LAMP test provides more options in a constrained global market for tests."

From the end of March, a New Zealand Traveller Declaration will require travellers to complete an online declaration prior to travel and upload evidence of vaccination and a negative pre-departure test. Before then, they will be manually checked by airline staff at check-in and by Customs staff on arrival.    

"They will need to confirm where they are staying in New Zealand, and cannot stay in a place with shared group facilities such as a backpackers or a hostel," Hipkins said. 

Arrivals will need to download the NZ COVID Tracer app upon arrival and will be given three RATs to use during their self-isolation period. 

Travellers must travel directly to their accommodation, avoiding visiting people and entering shops and businesses. They must wear a mask until they reach their accommodation, and ensure anyone picking them up wears a mask. 

Will self-isolation put tourists off?

Starting from July, the border will open to anyone from Australia, as well as countries with whom New Zealand has a visa-waiver agreement - more than 50. People with Accredited Employer Work Visas will also be allowed in, meaning the skilled and health worker border exception can be phased out. 

This step is likely to begin when there is a "much larger" number of cases in New Zealand than there are now. There is also a "high likelihood" this step will be brought forward. 

It remains to be seen if self-isolation will be required at each step of the border reopening, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said it will be kept under review, acknowledging that tourists would likely avoid travelling all the way to New Zealand if they had to self-isolate.

Hipkins said the current self-isolation for arrivals reflects public health advice - that they have a similar COVID-19 risk profile to close contacts of cases in the community. 

"As a result, they will follow similar protocols as community close contacts in phase 2 of the Omicron plan," Hipkins said, referring to the second phase of the Government's Omicron response, which comes into effect from Wednesday

"These include an isolation period of seven full days and reporting the results of two rapid antigen tests - one on day 0/1 and one on day 5/6. A positive result will need to be followed with a PCR test to monitor for any new COVID-19 variants.

"They can form a bubble with family or friends, who can continue to go to work or school, but must minimise contact with others as much as possible. No visitors are allowed."

Travellers will be able to temporarily leave self-isolation in special circumstances, such as visiting terminally ill relatives, to access urgent healthcare or to attend court hearings. But they will be encouraged to take a RAT if visiting a high-risk location such as a hospital or aged care facility and need to follow public health measures, Hipkins said. 

"Eligible groups approved by Sports NZ or the Ministry of Culture and Heritage may train or rehearse outside of their place of self-isolation. Any approval may have specific requirements and guidance."