Election campaigns are strange times. There can be a lot of talk about policy, but the real policy apparatus of government goes into limbo. Little gets done; politicians’ attentions are elsewhere.
For those of us who generally expect government attention to worsen outcomes rather than improve anything, election campaigns can provide a bit of breathing room.
It’s unlikely that anyone will actually impose particularly bad pieces of regulation during an election period. As bad as policies promised during the campaign might be, there is always some hope that the daftest do not make it through coalition negotiations.
During a global pandemic and recession, things are a bit different. A lot of work has been piling up, not only during the election campaign, but also in the lead-up to it. New Zealand’s border systems need to scale up, safely, to deal with the potential for a long haul ahead.
Last week, Singapore Airlines warned that international travel is unlikely to return to normal for two years. Even if a vaccine is proven effective in the next few months, scaling up production and distribution could easily take a year or more.
While New Zealand’s border systems have got us through, they do not operate at anything near the capacity needed for a longer haul. They could make do for a few months, but the costs of indefinitely deferred travel add up.
Projects with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake have been held up because bringing necessary experts in from abroad has simply been too hard. And families remain separated by a lack of spaces in managed isolation.
Proposals for improving things, in the lead-up to an election, were just too politically risky to consider. Now that the election is over, it’s time to start thinking.
Passengers from different places come with different amounts of risk. It makes sense that travellers from places where Covid-19 rates are high, like America, India, Brazil and the United Kingdom, should be isolated for a full two weeks. But direct flights from Taiwan carrying only people who have not been outside of Taiwan recently are as safe as domestic flights within New Zealand. The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) has not had a new confirmed Covid-19 case since July. Vietnam has kept Covid-19 successfully under control.
Every safe traveller from a safe place who is required to go through a full two-week stay in managed isolation and quarantine takes up a place that could have been used by another traveller, or by another Kiwi returning home. If the government announced that people arriving on direct flights from places like Taiwan or the ACT need only take a Covid-19 test before travel, present for testing on arrival, and provide contact details in case tracing were required, airlines could start offering those routes.
For other arrivals, layering on additional restrictions can improve safety while offering the potential to shorten stays in isolation, if additional restrictions prove successful.
Requiring passengers to be tested before departure would reduce the chances of transmission in-flight.
Regular wastewater testing at each managed isolation facility could give an early warning that someone in the facility was Covid-positive, and trigger testing of everyone in the facility. Covid-19 can and has spread within managed isolation facilities; the faster that positive cases can be identified and shuttled out to quarantine, the lower the chances that someone soon to leave managed isolation and quarantine catches Covid-19 from a new arrival.
In August, the University of Arizona used this kind of testing regime to prevent Covid-19 spread in its dorm rooms; wastewater testing in New Zealand has remained under investigation for months, with no apparent progress.
And a final mandatory Covid-19 test after leaving isolation would further reduce the risk that a late-onset case, or a case contracted while in isolation, resulted in outbreaks. We were lucky in September that a man who fell ill a few days after leaving managed isolation and quarantine self-isolated and sought testing.
Testbedding these additional layers on top of existing managed isolation and quarantine requirements would check their effectiveness.
If compliance with post-isolation testing proved very high, and if the additional layered restrictions meant cases were caught earlier, the Government could consider shortening stays in managed isolation and quarantine for low risk travellers from lower risk places. If the amount of time spent in managed isolation and quarantine could be halved for those travellers, the effective capacity of that part of the system would double.
International travel will not return to normal without a vaccine. But increasing effective capacity in managed isolation and exempting safe travellers from safe places from having to quarantine would alleviate hardship. Families separated by the border could see each other again. Projects stymied by the inability to get critical workers across the border could re-start. And others could join us to help in the economic recovery.
With the election out of the way, it’s time to start seriously considering options for scaling up safe arrivals. The economic consequences of continuing to ignore the issue are grim.