Government's COVID-19 border reopening plan shot down by Opposition parties as too slow and too fast

By Anneke Smith for RNZ

The government's plan to re-open the border, allowing people to bypass what the prime minister has described as "the anguish of MIQ", is being shot down by the opposition as both too slow and too fast.

New Zealanders in Australia will be the first to skip managed isolation and head straight into 10 days of self-isolation in the five-stage re-opening plan.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon said MIQ doesn't make sense anymore and phasing it out is the right thing to do.

"I could quibble about how it should have been done sooner and all that sort of stuff but at the end of the day, it's good for New Zealand; it's good for the families that have been suffering for two years and it's good for the businesses crying out for staff."

With community case numbers of Omicron rising by the day, ACT Party leader David Seymour said the 'phasing' approach to the new plan doesn't make sense.

"Soon we'll have tens of thousands of Omicron cases and it won't make a difference whether negative-tested, fully vaccinated travellers coming home and isolating for 10 days are Kiwis from Aussie or elsewhere, not Kiwis or coming for whatever reason.

"They're prepared to come home and self-isolate and they should be allowed to, regardless."

The Green Party has been a staunch supporter of MIQ and still is.

Its Covid-19 spokesperson Elizabeth Kerekere said the shift to self-isolation removes the safety net and will see the most vulnerable - those living in poverty, overcrowded housing and with pre-existing health conditions - hit hardest.

"We have a housing crisis; many people, even if they're perfectly healthy, are coming home and needing to find somewhere to live.

"And we know, particularly for Māori and Pasifika whānau, they already tend to have more overcrowded situations."

Te Paati Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer was in full PPE, vaccinating whānau in Taranaki, when she first heard about the phased border plan.

She said the government has moved to open the border knowing full well Māori aren't protected from Omicron.

"Are we ready? Have we done our job in making sure our most vulnerable, our Māori communities, are at 90 percent? No.

"We're 10 percent behind in boosters and 26 percent behind in children so this is an overwhelming sense of deja vu to be honest."

The shift from MIQ to self-isolation relies on people doing the right thing and following the rules.

Luxon says people need to take personal responsibility.

"We've had very high levels of compliance in this country by and large and New Zealanders have done a great job of supporting and following the rules.

"I think the same, I would hope, will happen here. Obviously when it doesn't happen the penalties need to be clearly applied."

The government can't guarantee random checks on overseas arrivals but says fines of up to $12,000 dollars can be issued to those who don't comply with the isolation rules.

New Zealanders in Australia relieved

Ken Hill, 78, and his wife have been grounded in Australia since the trans-Tasman bubble burst.

The couple were then due to fly home on 17 January: the original reopening date that was scrapped in December as the highly contagious Omicron variant took off.

They've now been booked for 3 March, which Hill said was an "unbelievable" feeling.

However, it was also mixed with sadness. He last saw one family member at a Christmas dinner in Australia. She then returned to New Zealand after securing an emergency MIQ spot because she only had three months to live, Hill said.

He said she died this week.

For others, like Erin Collin, who lives in Brisbane, the excitement was spoilt by the need for home isolation.

She said she could not afford to come home for a holiday with 10 days' home isolation and neither could her family visit her.

"I've spent two Christmases by myself now. To be able to come home at the end of the year and have Christmas with my family would be amazing."

Grounded Kiwis have a judicial review of the MIQ system due to be heard in just over a week, which they say is still important.

Spokesman Martin Newell, who's also in Australia, said he was relieved the rules were changing but would not quite believe it until it started happening.

He knew a lot of people, in and out, of New Zealand will be anxious.

"Hopefully one of the things that will come out of this, which has been quite an ugly side to see, is the division between Kiwis in New Zealand and Kiwis overseas has been quite nasty at times, particularly on social media, and I hope that some of those wounds will continue to heal."