New Zealand officials have defended their COVID-19 border regime as huge demand blows out waiting times for overseas Kiwis to enter their homeland.
There is no availability in NZ’s mandatory 14-day hotel ‘managed isolation and quarantine’, or MIQ, program until late February.
That means Kiwis keen to head home won’t leave isolation until March – more than 12 weeks away.
Outgoing MIQ chief Darryn Webb said they wouldn’t be standing up additional hotels beyond the 32 currently employed to meet demand.
“It’s a finite system … and it’s extremely complex to bring it all together,” he said.
“It requires the right infrastructure to ensure the right standards are met, the right workforce from both a health perspective and from a security perspective.
“What we have really is very close, if not right at the maximum capacity that we can sustain.
“4500 rooms is a significant number. Per head it certainly ranks in excess of many of our partners, Australia for example.”
The NZ government budgeted $NZ499 million ($A470 million) for the MIQ system this year, with Mr Webb saying they were “tracking to budget”.
On Friday, Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said Kiwis were now free to enter her state without a 14-day isolation, joining NSW and NT in creating a one-way travel corridor from New Zealand.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is yet to budge on opening the door at her end, with the NZ Herald reporting she has ruled out a trans-Tasman bubble until February at the earliest.
In the regional town of Woodville on Friday, Ms Ardern denied a specific time frame but agreed she was being cautious over the border.
“I don’t want to take any risks that jeopardise the freedoms we have,” she said.
Free movement across the Tasman would be a huge boost to business, tourism and for people eager to see loved ones.
It would also clear NZ’s MIQ backlog, as around 40 per cent of bookings are from Kiwis in Australia.
Ms Ardern’s caution is in keeping with her country’s COVID-19 elimination strategy.
The New Zealand government holds concerns about how Australian states might lockdown should future outbreaks occur, and of the ramifications of closing borders again once they are open; which would strand many on either side of the Tasman.
The game-changer in this situation is the arrival of a vaccine.
COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out in Europe and North America, and will arrive in New Zealand and Australia in early 2021.
The NZ Ministry of Health’s top science advisor Ian Town said the vaccine wouldn’t allow people to sidestep MIQ, until perhaps the “middle to second half of next year”.
“That’s a question that we haven’t answered yet it’s an obvious question,” Dr Town said.
“What we need to know is the effective efficacy if we can use that term of the vaccine in the medium to long term and how long those effects will last.”
New Zealand’s top doctor Ashley Bloomfield said it was “just too early” to plan to downscale or close the MIQ system.