The Covid road map: Under-promising, over-delivering and keeping options open

ANALYSIS: Finally. After almost 18 months of living in fortress New Zealand, the Government has released a road map for reconnecting to the rest of the globe.

It is scheduled sooner, is more detailed and more ambitious than expected.

The vaccination programme, which forms the basis of the plan, will now be cranked up: from September 1 all New Zealanders, regardless of age, will be able to start getting jabbed. The supply issues that plagued the Government earlier in the year now appear to have passed. It will now be a full-court press.

The Government has gone beyond what the Skegg report initially recommended – blending the evidence with the political reality and acknowledging the economic stresses building up. It has combined this with the need for a dose of optimism and a firmer idea of when the next steps will happen.

There was a bit of a feeling of bonhomie in the room as the good and the great from travel, government and business entered the auditorium at the National Library. It was clearly an exciting day for all.

There were no specific dates given but, as with both the trans-Tasman bubble and the start of the vaccine roll-out, there have been date ranges proffered. There will be a pilot and tightly controlled trial for travel later this year, and opening to quarantine-free travel to low-risk countries at the start of next year. For so-called medium-risk nations some form of self-isolation is likely to be required and returnees from high-risk countries will still require a trip through MIQ (managed isolation and quarantine).The question now will be how a definition is drawn up of low-risk, medium-risk or high-risk countries. And much of that will probably depend on what the situation looks like in places like the United Kingdom in a few months.

It is estimated that 92 per cent of all British adults now have Covid-19 antibodies through either vaccination or illness. How figures such as those play out in terms of infection spread and illness will clearly be key considerations in the new year, as will vaccination rates.

Professor Sir David Skegg, speaking at the event, noted more than once that “fortunately it is the politicians that have to make the difficult decisions” and that his group just provided advice. The Government has gone further than his group recommended.

Other key parts of the road map are throwing opening the vaccine booking system to all New Zealanders by September 1. Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield also made noises about the fact that the Ministry of Health is closely watching results from testing of vaccine on younger children – some as young as 6 months old.

The big cohort of New Zealanders who will be unvaccinated early next year (at this stage) will be children, so this is clearly an area to watch. Politically as well, it will produce a challenge: for those worried about Covid-19 arriving, it is potentially problematic that the only New Zealanders without the option of vaccine protection are children.

But there are still clearly unanswered questions. The key one is around how low, medium and high risk countries are determined, how they are monitored and the process for redesignating countries as Covid-19 risk changes.

Clearly Australia was low risk two months ago. Today it is not.

It is unclear – as with the bubble – how much, if any, certainty there will be for travellers.

There is also still an inherent tension with maintaining the elimination strategy and opening up. Skegg made clear his view that elimination was the best plan “for now” but should be reviewed frequently and changed if the evidence supported a change.

Ardern used a phrase which it is likely we will hear more of: that by maintaining elimination for the time being and going slow we are “keeping our options open”.

For those calling for a road map and a sense of how New Zealand reconnects, this announcement has provided some significant details and a way ahead.

It will be too slow for some, much too fast for others but it is at least a direction of travel.

August 13, 2021