The New Zealand government is softening expectations it could impose border controls on its citizens all through 2022, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern seeing such restrictions as a worst-case scenario.
Last week, Tourism Minister Stuart Nash told an industry roundtable they should prepare for regulations demanding week-long self-isolation on arrival to stay in place through next year.
In an interview with AAP, Ms Ardern said she would be open to moving sooner, but business should be prepared for a year of self-isolation requirements.
“Let’s prepare and plan for those difficult scenarios, but then have the flexibility to move (earlier),” Ms Ardern said.
The NZ government is prioritising ditching domestic restrictions over freer international borders, as it looks to keep cases to a manageable level for its health system.
“We’re able to ease (border restrictions) back if we’re able to rely more on vaccine and pre-departure testing safely, whilst … domestically doing less,” she said.
One big part of the domestic jigsaw falls into place this week, when border restrictions around Auckland – since August the centre of a Delta outbreak – are removed.
On Monday, health officials reported 101 community COVID-19 cases, 97 of which were from Auckland.
The government believes once the Auckland border is opened, the virus will eventually spread to other parts of New Zealand, and opening up internationally at the same time ups the risk of further outbreaks.
Still, it is planning to soften border settings from January 2022, when Australia-based Kiwis can arrive and isolate at home for a week, subject to some as yet to be confirmed testing requirements.
From February, New Zealanders in other countries will be eligible for the self-isolation regime, and from May, so will foreigners.
Despite New Zealand’s soaring vaccination rate – as of Monday, 89 per cent of eligible Kiwis were fully vaccinated – there is no sunset clause to self-isolation.
Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts says the continuation of border controls will cost the economy $NZ16 billion ($A15.2 billion) in lost earnings.
“Australian tourism is grateful they don’t have New Zealand as a competitor … instead of going to New Zealand, (tourists) could go to Canada or Australia or the USA and not do self-isolation,” he told AAP.
“It’s going to be an intensely competitive market – it already is – and New Zealand is going to start at the back of the field.”
Mr Roberts has called on the government to re-start a trans-Tasman bubble-style arrangement at some stage in 2022.
Ms Ardern is hearing the calls: but does not want a similar outcome to the previous bubble, which was canned after three difficult months.
“What we want to do is not move back and forward. Lots of countries who took off restrictions are putting them back on,” she said.
Those upset with New Zealand’s border settings continue to ramp up pressure on the government.
Lobby group Grounded Kiwis are presenting a petition at parliament on Tuesday, signed by 23,000 people who see the border rules as unfair.