New Zealand’s South Island has registered its first Covid cases in a major city in over a year, with two cases discovered in Christchurch, when the government announced it would start relaxing in its strict international border settings.
Covid-19 Defense Minister Chris Hipkins said that at this stage there would be no rapid closure for the city, the largest on the South Island, despite the fact that one of the cases may have been contagious in the community for almost two weeks.
“This is a good reminder to people around the country that cases can arise and this highlights the importance of being vaccinated,” Hipkins said.
Both of Thursday’s new cases were members of the same household, and one had recently returned from Auckland.
New Zealand announced 89 new cases of Covid-19 on Thursday, including the two in Christchurch. According to the Ministry of Health, 89% of the competent adults in Canterbury, where Christchurch is the capital, had received at least one dose of the vaccine and 67% had received both doses. The region would require nearly 111,000 people to receive both doses before they hit 90% target set by the government, where most restrictions can be lifted. Across the country, 85% of the eligible population (those aged 12 and over) have received at least one dose of the vaccine, or 72% of the entire population; 70% of the eligible population has received both doses, or 60% of the entire population.
Epidemiologist and public health professor Michael Baker said there must be stronger protection at the borders between the North and South Islands. “We may be seeing the whole of the South Island with falls at the moment, because we have an increasing transfer in Auckland, and still people flying from Auckland around the country – and we have limited controls on that,” he said. Baker called for tests before departure and requirements for vaccines on domestic flights.
Dr Apisalome Talemaitoga, chair of the Pacific GP Network, said via the Science Media Center, “I just think it’s incredible that we allow unvaccinated people from Auckland to travel – for whatever reason. People should be double vaccinated before they can do that.”
With the region still weeks away from 90% vaccination, Baker said there were “major health and economic reasons for delaying widespread transmission on the South Island for as long as possible”. Otherwise, he said, the region could face restrictions or possible closures until Christmas.
Hipkins said the two infected people cooperated with authorities but had not scanned in with New Zealand’s site tracking app – a detail that could make contact tracking more difficult. Both are unvaccinated.
With a later update, the minister said that quarantine requirements for international arrivals would be eased next month.
“As the vaccination rate has increased internationally, the number of Covid cases has been picked up via our MIQ [managed isolation and quarantine] facilities have continued to decline. We now only get 2-3 cases per 1,000 arrivals and only about 1 in 2,000 are detected after seven days of isolation, says Hipkins.
From November 14, MIQ stays will be reduced from 14 days to seven, with travelers tested on day zero, three and six. They will then be isolated at home for short periods of about three days and tested again on day nine.
This is likely to free up about 1,500 rooms a month in MIQ, Hipkins said. Some of this will be addressed by Community matters, but some will go into the booking system for travelers from abroad.
On November 8, travelers from low-risk countries, beginning on some Pacific islands, will be able to walk past MIQ altogether. Travelers must be fully vaccinated, unless they are New Zealand citizens.
During the first quarter of 2022, an increasing number of fully vaccinated international travelers will be able to skip quarantine and isolate themselves. This step in the new MIQ regime will depend on the country switching to its new traffic light system.
Hipkins said: “My message to all New Zealanders, whether here or abroad, is very, very simple. Get vaccinated. Then we can all go back to doing the things we love and meeting the people we love.”
But New Zealanders stranded abroad and desperate to return home feel dissatisfied with the announcement.
Rikki Sands, a New Zealand citizen based in Brisbane, has participated in the MIQ lottery four times without success. Sands, who specializes in mechanical and hydraulic engineering, his wife and two daughters have been planning to return home since the beginning of the year.
“I have a better chance of winning the lottery than an MIQ spot at the moment,” Sands said.
He said the release of 1,500 more MIQ places was negligible and did not give him confidence that he would return home earlier.
And he believes that the motivations are unfair. “They said that the reason they could not open the borders was because the locals were not vaccinated. But some of those who come in internationally will all be double vaccinated.
“Our family is all double grown and comes from Brisbane, Australia, which is a very low risk area, and we will get all the tests required before we fly. We just want to get home to our whānau [family]. ”