The government is set to announce a three-step plan to reopen the border to vaccinated tourists and visa holders, reports political editor Jo Moir
Next month vaccinated Australian tourists will be able to travel to New Zealand without requiring isolation – advancing the reopening plan by three months from July.
On Wednesday, the prime minister will announce the dates for the border, which the newsroom said has changed from a two-stage to a three-stage opening.
Until recently, the plan was for fully vaccinated travelers from Australia and all other visa-exempt countries to be able to enter by July, followed by all other visa categories from October.
But the arrival of the Omicron variant and its spread in the community prompted the government to move these dates forward.
The newsroom understands that the first phase will now be restricted to Australian travellers, to test the waters as the country emerges from its Omicron peak, and in a few weeks travelers from visa-free countries will follow.
The third tranche will be made up of travelers from the remaining countries where visas are required to enter, but the newsroom understands that a date will not be given for this phase when announced on Wednesday.
Instead, government and health officials will take the time to assess how the rest of the border reopening is going and its impact before committing to the final tranche.
Although the announcement brings the dates forward by several months, at the same time it only realigns it with a previous plan to open the border to foreign nationals on April 30, which was announced by the Minister for Covid Response. Chris Hipkins in November last year.
This was before Omicron arrived and reopening plans were scrapped and reset to account for the impending outbreak.
Reopening with Australia next month will coincide with school holidays in many states – schools in Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia and South Australia are all on Easter holidays in mid-April until April 26 or May 2.
New Zealand schools are also on vacation until May 2, which will give airlines confidence that they can prepare for increased two-way travel across the gap.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has indicated for weeks that the timetable for opening borders would be brought forward to better align with the eased restrictions resulting from Omicron’s sweep across the country.
Isolation requirements have completely disappeared for everyone except household contacts and positive cases, and Ardern has said publicly that other restrictions will ease further as the country crosses the peak.
This peak is still expected to start flattening by the end of March – Auckland is already starting to see numbers drop, while the rest of the country’s peak is slightly behind.
By opening the border with Australia first, it will give ministers and officials a chance to see what impact, if any, it has on cases and hospitalizations before moving further into visa-free countries. .
Ardern will also make announcements next week regarding vaccine mandates.
Ardern has previously stressed that warrants and running red lights will no longer be necessary once Omicron peaks, cases come down the other side and hospitalizations normalize.
Regardless of changes to traffic light settings and mandates, openness to tourists and visa holders should also be considered.