New Zealand has reopened its border bookings to those trying to return home, as cases in its current Covid outbreak continue to decline.
The country reported 14 new cases of Covid-19 on Wednesday, all of which were linked to existing cases. Auckland, the centre of the outbreak, remains in lockdown, but the rest of the country can now operate relatively freely, with mask requirements and some restrictions on gathering size.
The low case numbers will be welcome news for the country, which is attempting to wipe out the virus and continue its elimination strategy. New Zealand health officials are particularly attuned to “mystery cases” – those that cannot be linked to existing infections – as these could signal that the virus is spreading undetected through the community. Wednesday’s release of numbers had no mystery cases.
“Trends are heading, generally speaking, in the right direction,” the Covid-19 response minister, Chris Hipkins, said. “But you never say never because things can change – they can change quite quickly.”
Hipkins announced on Wednesday that the managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) system would be reopened for bookings after it was paused early on in New Zealand’s Delta outbreak.
All those re-entering the country must book a place in MIQ and spend 14 days in a government-run quarantine facility. But spots in the facilities are limited and often booked out months in advance. New Zealanders stranded overseas report spending weeks unsuccessfully refreshing the site searching for a spot, and say the difficulty of getting home has taken a financial, emotional and psychological toll.
The government said on Wednesday that bookings would restart on Monday, with the release of 3,000 rooms.
On the vaccination front, 67.5% of New Zealand’s eligible population (those aged 12 and over) have had at least one shot, and 34.6% were fully vaccinated with both doses.
The director general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, said that the current outbreak had “given many people, in particular Aucklanders, a reality check that actually the virus is not just real, but it can be harmful – it has put people in hospital and people in intensive care, it has affected hundreds of people in Auckland.”
While the rate of people getting vaccinated has slowed somewhat from the early days of the outbreak, Hipkins said he was confident New Zealand would reach high rates of vaccination.
“We have consistently seen the level of vaccine hesitancy declining in New Zealand, from the beginning of the year where it was still quite a significant number to a much smaller number now,” he said. “I think we can be increasingly confident that we can get up to very high levels of vaccination in New Zealand.”