Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's warning to COVID-19 isolation rule-breakers ahead of border reopening

Self-isolation rule-breakers could be slapped with a fine of up to $12,000, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has warned, ahead of the border reopening. 

The Government announced on Thursday that mandatory state-run managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) will be phased out for international arrivals from March, with travellers expected to self-isolate for seven to 10 days instead. 

"We have to keep in mind that when you move to self-isolation, it does have a high level of personal responsibility involved. There are fines attached - anywhere between $4000 to $12,000 if you breach self-isolation requirements," Ardern told reporters. 

"But we have made the decision to move to this phase at a time when New Zealand will be in a better position to deal with those who may breach the requirements that are in place."

She described it as a "carefully balanced" approach to opening up. 

"The most important thing we can do for New Zealanders right now is, unlike other countries, use the time we have before a large-scale outbreak, to be boosted. Very few countries have had that chance. We do. 

"That's why we've deliberately timed the reopening to a point where 92 percent of New Zealanders will have been eligible to be boosted and therefore we'll be as ready as we can be."

Booster vaccinations are now available to a million more people in New Zealand after the Government earlier this week reduced the interval between the second dose and the booster from four months to three

New Zealand is also one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, with 94 percent of over-12s fully-inoculated.

"The general advice that we've had is that with Omicron, when you have a larger number of cases, the more that you have within the country, the less that the seeding makes a difference to the outbreak. 

"And so, you'll have seen me reference that by July for that larger number of travellers, is likely to come forward once we have had those larger numbers of cases within New Zealand, because at that point it makes less of a difference overall to the outbreak."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's warning to COVID-19 isolation rule-breakers ahead of border reopening

The Government will not tolerate rule-breakers. Fines for breaching COVID-19 rules were bumped up last year, with the maximum fine now $12,000.

"One of the things we've built into our calculation is the assumption that, of course, there will be human behaviour. We have an expectation that everyone follows the rules, and if they do not, a $4000 to $12,000 fine can be imposed," Ardern said. 

"And so, there is a very high expectation. 

"But we also know that with the sheer numbers that are likely to return... I've seen no country around the world that's been able to manage one that is absolutely failsafe. We built that into our balanced approach of bringing in people at a time when we can deal with the fact that that may happen on occasion."

But self-isolation won't be here forever. 

"We do see self-isolation requirements changing over time. We've already said that, for instance, we expect as we move through the pandemic, there will be a reduction to seven days over time," Ardern said. 

"We will constantly keep that under review as we do for all of our settings. 

"It will be a much more meaningful reopening to tourists from Australia and visa-free countries if they're able to enter with a lesser self-isolation requirement."

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

Pre-departure testing will remain. 

"It's played a really important role in reducing the number of cases we have at the border. It's even more effective when you're using it on short-haul because there's less likelihood of coming into contact with Omicron between times," Ardern said. 

"It will be part of our system, yes."

Arrivals will also be required to test themselves using free rapid antigen tests. All will be provided with three tests at the airport, one for use on day one, and one for use on day five, with one extra for backup.

The border reopening only applies to the "fully vaccinated" while the unvaccinated will still have to spend time in MIQ. 

"At the moment, we're including 'fully vaccinated' as the first and second dose. We are working through options of the inclusion of boosters," Ardern said. 

"One of the complications is of course, not every country has the same availability and eligibility of boosters that New Zealand does, so we need to make sure we're not excluding people from coming home because they're in a country where they're unable or not eligible for a booster shot. 

"We are working that through and seeing whether or not there are ways that we can build an equitable system but still use boosters at our borders."

Rapid antigen test.
Rapid antigen test. Photo credit: Getty Images

MIQ as we know it will eventually change. 

"One of the things we anticipate is, part of having a long-term quarantine service for New Zealand, is that we will have a dedicated workforce and that we will have purpose-designed facilities," Ardern said. 

"At this point, that could either include purpose-built or existing facilities where we've advanced their functionality specifically for quarantine. We do expect to get additional advice but we have explored a range of those options over the past months."

Ardern promised not to change the reopening dates. She gave a similar reopening speech in August last year, but then came the Delta outbreak. The Government's plan to allow-self-isolation for returning Kiwis in Australia from January 17 was postponed until the end of February due to the threat of Omicron. 

The Government also postponed the latest MIQ lottery voucher release for March and April, meaning the only way to get into New Zealand was by applying for an emergency room. 

The implications were brought into the spotlight this week by pregnant Kiwi journalist Charlotte Bellis, whose emergency application was initially rejected by MIQ, despite informing them she would be forced to give birth in war-torn Afghanistan

"We have no intention of changing these dates," Ardern said. 

"We want people to be able to plan. And as you can see, even with the additional variant that's being discussed at present, that is where boosters do play a role. 

"So again, I just encourage everyone: go and get your booster. You too have a timeline now for knowing when we're hoping that everyone goes and takes that opportunity by."