Aucklanders are more likely to catch COVID from neighbours than fully vaccinated foreign visitors, according to new research from public health academics.
A quintet of University of Otago researchers, including two professors, argue their work should compel the New Zealand government to reconsider the hard border to its biggest city.
New Zealand allows just a few thousand entries each fortnight, who all must quarantine on arrival in a hotel.
Jacinda Ardern is resisting any change to those border settings until early 2022 – a situation that leaves many overseas-based Kiwis locked out of their country.
The University of Otago piece compares current infection rates in Auckland with the comparable rate in many other countries, including Australia.
To match the current profile of international arrivals to New Zealand, the analysis looks at overseas infection rates of fully vaccinated individuals.
It finds Aucklanders are more at risk from a random member of their own community than they would be from double-dosed individuals from many other countries.
That includes residents of every Australian state and many other developed countries.
The three countries with higher transmission rates (among fully vaccinated) are the UK, Austria and Norway.
The conclusion the academics reach is that that New Zealand’s quarantine hotel regime (known as ‘MIQ’) could be abandoned or redesigned for many international visitors hoping to reach Auckland.
“Current MIQ requirements for tested vaccinated travellers have become inconsistent and arbitrary,” corresponding author Lucy Telfar Barnard wrote.
“Filling MIQ rooms with arrivals who typically have a lower infection risk than Aucklanders wastes limited MIQ space.”
MIQ has been previously used to house COVID-positive Kiwis, but the growing Delta outbreak in Auckland means there is not room for them all.
It has created the perverse situation where hundreds with COVID-19 are in their own houses, but more still without COVID-19 must wait in MIQ, or continue their stay overseas.
Ms Ardern’s government is aware of the plight of overseas-based citizens.
The vocal and growing Grounded Kiwis group is pressing for a relaxation of quarantine requirements.
The government has relented a little: from next week, the minimum stay in MIQ is seven days, rather than 14.
Ms Ardern’s government is also running a home isolation pilot for some businesses this month.
She is resistant to a large scale abandonment of MIQ, saying the government could then expect 20,000 arrivals.
“That’s potentially hundreds of cases that you’re adding in to a potential outbreak,” she said.
“What we’re working towards … is to make sure that we (reopen to the world) safely and well.”
Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield echoed Ms Ardern’s sentiment.
“Clearly the comparative risk of people travelling from overseas – who have had a pre-departure test and are fully vaccinated – is low. It’s not zero though,” he said.