Stronger borders

Dr Eric Crampton
Insights Newsletter
9 April, 2021

Bubbles are beautiful but fragile things. Not letting the new one break matters.

New Zealand’s coming free-travel area with Australia is not the world’s first. Covid-free Palau and Taiwan beat us to it last week. But it will be the most substantial one thanks to strong trans-Tasman links.

The closed border imposed massive costs on families kept apart; on communities that relied on trans-Tasman tourism; and, on businesses that depend on travel between the two countries. The last on that list may be underappreciated. In 2019, the stock of Australian foreign investment in New Zealand was $129 billion. Not being able to pop round to check one’s investment for over a year can have consequences.

Maintaining quarantine-free travel with Australia is important. Expanding the bubble to include other Covid-free places like Taiwan and the Pacific Islands should be next. Both require keeping Covid out. Localised outbreaks would cause travel headaches, but broader outbreaks could break the bubble.

New Zealand’s MIQ system has barely held together over the past year. Otago public health researchers tallied thirteen border failures since July, and at least six internal MIQ facility failures. Despite being a year into this, basic errors continue to be made – like gathering visitors from different facilities onto the same bus for trips out to the park.

Australians do not bring Covid into MIQ, though they might catch it there. Poor MIQ practice means new arrivals can infect departing guests. Because the government knows that MIQ practice has been shoddy, it does not trust the system to handle more people from riskier places like America, Canada, and the UK.

So the government will de-commission MIQ spaces rather than let them be used, and has halted travel from India entirely.

If there were no way of improving safety in MIQ, limiting risk by limiting numbers would be the only option until we are all vaccinated.

Alternatives are worth trying.

Testing every guest every day would sharply reduce transmission within MIQ. Infected people could quickly be shuttled to quarantine.

Cheap, accurate, and non-invasive saliva-based PCR testing is available. Rako Science has capacity to test every single person in MIQ, every day. But the Ministry of Health’s Request for Proposals only seeks testing of border workers – who are now vaccinated and lower risk.

Tightening the border system matters if we want to keep the bubble. It could also let us re-commission those MIQ spaces, so more Kiwis could come home.

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