COVID-19: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirms unvaccinated travellers will eventually be welcome in New Zealand

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has confirmed unvaccinated travellers will eventually be welcomed to New Zealand, but "we haven't made those decisions today". 

Her comments came after the Government's announcement that the international border will reopen to vaccinated Australians from April 12 and vaccinated visa waiver tourists from May 1 but two COVID-19 tests will be required during their trip. 

While tourists will not have to isolate, they will need to submit evidence of a supervised pre-departure rapid antigen test (RAT) result, and will be asked to self-isolate according to the Government's rules (currently a week) if they test positive for COVID-19 while in New Zealand. 

"At the moment, we're asking for a supervised rapid-antigen test," Ardern said on Wednesday. 

"The only reason for the supervision is because of course that gives you some form of proof of the test. I do expect over time we'll see the evolution of the way we're doing this but at the moment rapid-antigen tests are available in most markets where we expect to see travel."

Ardern said tourists will be encouraged to follow-up a positive RAT test in New Zealand with a traditional nasal PCR swab for confirmation of the result and to keep up variant surveillance. 

"At the same time, we are looking at whether or not there are other ways to build in that surveillance that might give us a bit of an early and more diverse surveillance, so sampling of different flights from different parts of the country. We'll keep analysing what will be best practice at the border.

"What we want is gold-standard surveillance at the border - in the same way that New Zealand's great at biosecurity, we become really efficient at this kind of surveillance so that visitors aren't necessarily slowed down by it, but we're able to keep them safe and ourselves safe."

Tourists must be fully vaccinated, which at this stage means two doses of an approved COVID-19 vaccine. Unvaccinated Kiwis are allowed into New Zealand but must spend time in state-run managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ). However, the border will remain shut to unvaccinated tourists for now. 

Asked on Wednesday if unvaccinated tourists will ever be welcomed to New Zealand, Ardern confirmed they would.

"I expect that over time we will keep seeing changes. We haven't made those decisions today but I anticipate we will continue to evolve our response," Ardern said.

"We are continuing to look at, for instance, pre-departure testing. Originally we required PCR and now we use rapid antigen testing but in a supervised environment. I imagine we will evolve that approach as the numbers become larger."

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

Tourism Minister Stuart Nash pointed out that it's also airlines - Air New Zealand included - that require passengers to be either vaccinated or provide evidence of a negative test. 

"It's worth noting that a lot of airlines require passengers to be vaccinated or have a pre-departure test before they're even allowed on the plane so they are the first barrier to entry for the unvaccinated, anyway."

The Government's vaccine passes and mandates would prevent tourists from visiting hospitality venues and other close contact businesses required to use them under the COVID Protection Framework, or traffic light system. 

Ardern could not confirm if tourists will be able to download one to use. 

"I'd have to double-check. We do have a process in order to be able to get a New Zealand vaccine pass but I can assure you that this will not be prohibitive for a traveller here.

"If we are still using vaccine passes at that date, we will have a workable solution, but as I've already indicated, once we've come down off that peak we've not anticipated using them in the New Zealand system."

Trans-Tasman travellers have historically made up 40 percent of New Zealand's international arrivals, with around 1.5 million Australians visiting each year.
Trans-Tasman travellers have historically made up 40 percent of New Zealand's international arrivals, with around 1.5 million Australians visiting each year. Photo credit: Getty Images

Ardern said Cabinet will decide the future of vaccine passes and mandates over the next week as part of a review of the COVID Protection Framework.

"At the moment what we have are gathering limits which have not limited the ability of many of our tourism operators, albeit with additional safety mechanisms in place, to continue offering for domestic tourists and we would expect that to continue.

"But also, we are taking a second look at the settings within our COVID Protection Framework. The use of vaccine passes and mandates, we've already indicated that those are likely to change in short order as we come off the top of our peak. 

"Cabinet is considering all of that over the course of this week and next and we'll have announcements to make on the future of those tools next week. 

"Whilst of course we need Cabinet to finalise those decisions, we have already indicated that we see that the role of vaccine passes once we come through that first wave, changes. 

"Originally they were in place to protect from high-risk environments unvaccinated individuals. Once we come through this wave, many of them will have been exposed to COVID, which changes the need for them altogether."

Ardern also said the tentative October date for tourists from non-visa waiver countries - like China and India - to be able to enter New Zealand, may be brought forward. 

"Keeping in mind, we're already dealing with a large number of people who are now being made residents through recent decisions and gearing back up a lot of visa processing. We haven't yet made those decisions but we are looking at the ability to bring it forward."

Ardern said there are about 570,000 holders of a valid visitor visas currently offshore. Those visas are often multi-entry that can be held for up to five years. They can also enter New Zealand on May 1.