Jacinda Ardern has decried as “dangerous” her detractors’ calls to open New Zealand’s borders – or present a plan for how she will do so – as the country remains largely free of Covid-19 while the virus spreads abroad.
Telling reporters on Tuesday that she had heard “calls for our borders to be opened to the world”, the New Zealand prime minister referred to “a world where the virus is escalating not slowing and not even peaking in some countries yet, where cases exceed 10 million globally and deaths half a million, where countries are extending and returning to lockdown”.
“All of the while, we get to enjoy weekend sport, go to restaurants and bars, our workplaces are open, and we can gather in whatever numbers we like,” she said.
She appeared to be responding to Todd Muller – the leader of the opposition and the centre-right National party – who, along with business leaders, branded as “untenable” the prospect of keeping the country’s borders sealed for months or years until a Covid-19 vaccine is found.
A swift, strict lockdown of the country in March and April appeared to have eliminated community transmission of the virus shortly after it appeared in New Zealand – with New Zealanders returning to the country accounting for all the 22 current cases diagnosed. The nation has become an international success story for addressing Covid-19 but it now faces a world where preserving that status means tightly sealed borders.
“A strategy that says we stay completely closed to everybody for the next 12 to 18 months is simply untenable,” Muller told the Wellington Chamber of Commerce in a speech on Monday. “We won’t recognise this country in terms of economic impact.”
He added in a statement on Tuesday that he was not advocating an immediate reopening of borders, but wanted to know how and when they would be “progressively reopened”.
Only New Zealanders and their families are allowed to enter the country, along with some government-approved essential workers. Returnees must spend two weeks in government-managed quarantine at designated hotels; they are tested for Covid-19 twice during their stay and are not permitted to leave isolation for a further two weeks if they refuse a test.
The quarantine rules were drastically tightened after it was discovered that health officials had let dozens leave early on compassionate exemptions without testing; two women arriving from Britain were allowed out before both were diagnosed with Covid-19. They have since recovered and did not appear to have spread it to anyone else.
All 22 cases active in the country now were diagnosed through routine testing at the quarantine hotels; 21 of those who have it remain in isolation, with one in a stable condition in hospital.
Fewer than 1,200 confirmed cases of the virus have been diagnosed in New Zealand; 22 people have died. The apparent elimination of community transmission means life has returned to normal domestically, with only the strict border rules remaining in place.
“These are hard-won gains, and we have as a government no intention of squandering them,” Ardern said on Tuesday. “The idea that we should open our border in this environment has a price, and that price could be a second wave of Covd-19 in our country at worst – at best, added restrictions for the rest of us.”
Her government has been in talks to pursue a so-called trans-Tasman bubble of quarantine-free travel with Australia and the Pacific Islands, although she has said it would not be safe to implement such a strategy yet.
Ardern on Monday sternly warned New Zealanders against recreational travel abroad, despite the European Union’s announcement that the country was on its new list of accepted travellers. She said those leaving New Zealand for non-essential reasons could be forced to pay for their mandatory two-week quarantine upon returning – to the tune of thousands of dollars.
She is seeking legal advice to confirm she could implement such a rule.
In response to Muller’s call for a plan to reopen the country, she said: “In the short term, where we have an environment where we don’t have large-scale effective treatment, where we don’t have a vaccine, where we don’t have short-term turnaround on testing, and while the pandemic is surging, that means in the short-term we’re looking for countries in a similar position to us.”