Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Phil O’Reilly: Three things to get right as we open our borders


New Zealand’s openness to the world, including through people to people contact across our border, has always been one of our core strengths and drivers of community prosperity.

As we move towards achieving our vaccination targets by the end of this year, we can think afresh about the way our border will work in the future.

There are three key principles that policy-makers should consider as we work towards this next normal for our border.

1. Certainty around the rules for entry

Some of us are old enough to remember when we could cross borders without much security checking at all. That all changed after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

But that new normal of border security is now well understood by the travelling public and allows as much certainty around border openings as it did previously.

The cost of course is that we have to spend more time at the airport before flying and in many countries, we have to give up personal data such as fingerprints that we might not otherwise be comfortable with. But that is the condition of travel. Changes were well signalled, and we could plan ahead for them.

What might Covid add to that?

Perhaps rapid Covid testing before we travel or after we arrive or both. A condition that we can’t travel unless we are fully vaccinated with an approved list of vaccines that we know about well in advance.

These things are relatively stable and predictable. People can plan ahead, knowing that if they undertake these things then they should, all things being equal, be able to travel across our border and back out again.

But the idea of having countries on a red or green list that constantly changes without notice does not create certainty. In any case, Delta makes that kind of thinking rather redundant.

Delta is now endemic pretty much everywhere, or soon will be. Better to focus on the traveller rather than the country. That is a much more stable and predictable environment, both for travellers and our border security.

2. Time certainty

The current MIQ lottery is the opposite of arrival time certainty. Our next normal needs to be one where travellers are certain that they can arrive and cross our border at a particular time.

We all know sometimes that doesn’t occur. Bad weather or flight delay occasionally get in the way. But for the vast majority of circumstances people know that they can arrive at a particular time and enter our country, subject to complying with our rules.

That is important not just for business people but also for families attending a funeral. If you simply don’t know when you can arrive and you can’t make plans accordingly, then the border is effectively closed.

It may be that our next “normal” will feature some form of MIQ, but its use should be minimised, perhaps to returning New Zealanders who have not been vaccinated for whatever reason.

Many countries are restricting their borders for non-citizens to those who are fully vaccinated with approved vaccinations. That may well be a sensible outcome for us too.

3. Time efficiency

One of the other things about our current MIQ is that it adds 14 days to any trip even once a place has been found in the lottery. There is some talk about reducing that time for some people or using alternative facilities. That won’t work either once we are sufficiently vaccinated as a country.

Very few business travellers will come here if they have to isolate for seven days. Likewise, no tourists will come here in any numbers if they must isolate. People will struggle to turn up for family events like funerals in a timely fashion.

Where to get a vaccination in Auckland – without a booking

In our next “normal” we will have to make border entry more efficient. A few extra hours of health testing is likely to be entirely acceptable, just as the addition of that time for security checking was acceptable to us 20 years ago.

But the idea of isolation for fully vaccinated people simply won’t work in the real world if we really want our border to be open.

Our current MIQ woes tell us what social and economic damage a closed border causes us. The human misery that we are still seeing nearly two years on tells us that one of the real dividends of high vaccination rates before Christmas will mean that we can really think about our next “normal” at the border in the new year. That will need to enable us to properly reconnect with the world, with all the value that brings to our communities.

– Phil O’Reilly is managing director of Iron Duke.

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