‘We’re all nervous’: NZ’s Covid tsar Chris Hipkins admits uncertainty over border reopening

The Guardian
The Guardian
New Zealand’s Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins says he has no regrets about the country’s strict but soon-to-be-lifted pandemic border controls.

In the midst of an Omicron outbreak and almost two years after New Zealand shut its borders, the government has announced its latest reopening plan. For most New Zealanders, the coming months will be their first direct experience of widespread Covid-19. No one, not even the minister in charge, knows what exactly will come next.

“I think we’re all nervous about what the next few months has in store for New Zealand,” Chris Hipkins, the minister responsible for the country’s pandemic response, told the Guardian. “Covid-19, and Omicron in particular, is here now – it is in New Zealand and it will spread. We know that is going to happen. The extent of that, the effectiveness of our public health measures, the effect on our health system and on our most vulnerable populations is still something that’s the subject of models rather than reality.”

The border has been the linchpin of New Zealand’s Covid response, the crucial ingredient of its long virus-free stretches, and the primary reason that it is now facing down endemic infection with a highly vaccinated population. That border coming down is a symbol of how radically New Zealand’s pandemic response has shifted over the last six months: from the relentless pursuit of Covid zero, to a gradual acceptance that Covid had arrived, and would spread throughout the country.

For some people, Hipkins thinks the spread of Omicron and reopening of the borders will come with a shock – that the path to rebuild normality, and travel infrastructure to and from the country will be slow. “I think there’s a view that seems to have formed amongst some people that the rest of the world is sort of back to normal,” he says. “Normal is still a way away. And not all of that’s going to be within New Zealand’s control – we’ve still got Covid-19 spreading around the world, there’s still the potential for new variants of Covid 19 … it’s not like you suddenly turn on a switch and you know, all the planes go back into the air and everything’s back to the way it was.”
New Zealand’s strict Covid border measures have left many New Zealanders separated from family for long periods. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

The drawbridge will start easing down later this month: opening first to New Zealanders coming from Australia, then a few weeks later to New Zealanders elsewhere, then Australians, visa holders, and finally everyone else. The reopening is marked by New Zealand’s now-customary caution – staggered over nearly nine months, it will not be open to all international tourists and travellers until October 2022.

“Our restrictions there have served us well as a country, but they were only ever intended to be temporary. I think everybody would agree it’s not feasible to keep those kinds of restrictions in place for a prolonged period,” he says “If anything, I think most of us wouldn’t have envisioned they would be in place for as long as they have been.”

A festering sore point

The announcement of reopening will not come as a surprise to most New Zealanders. In the last month, pressures at the border had been boiling over. The story of Charlotte Bellis – a pregnant journalist who had approached the Taliban to stay in Afghanistan after initially being declined entry to New Zealand – had made international headlines. Other stories, of families divided, children unable to visit terminally-ill parents, people stranded without visas or jobs, had been accumulating. A group of citizens stranded overseas had brought a court case against the government, challenging the legality of barring them from entry. Finally, the spread of Omicron within New Zealand’s borders meant strict policies to keep it out looked increasingly untenable.

“I don’t have any regrets about the concept of having MIQ [managed isolation and quarantine],” Hipkins says. “[But] we’re acutely aware of the pressure that’s built up while there have been these restrictions.”

The border had become a festering sore point in the country’s policy, with those overseas arguing the lottery for quarantine was arbitrary, unfair, and inhumane. “I would acknowledge how difficult it’s been for them – and I’ll actually say thank you to them on behalf of the whole country, who because of the sacrifices that they have made have been able to enjoy a much greater degree of freedom,” Hipkins says. “There have been fewer funerals, because of what we’ve been able to achieve with our Covid-19 response and the sacrifice that they have made has been a big part of that. I don’t for a moment underestimate what a sacrifice [that] has been for some people.”

“I think New Zealanders do accept that we can’t live a life of suspended animation indefinitely,” Hipkins says.

Shift to ‘individual armour’ risks leaving people behind

The change in the Covid response also means a tipping of the balance, away from New Zealand’s highly centralised, government-mandated response, to one that falls more in the realm of individual responsibility. “It is going to be a big shift. It’s going to take everybody a little while to get their heads around the new realities, and how things will be different. But we’re well prepared,” Hipkins says.

In speeches, prime minister Jacinda Ardern has called it a shift toward “individual armour of the vaccine” – while New Zealand’s initial response depended on the fortress walls protecting everyone inside, its new strategy means people need to strap on their own chainmail – vaccines, boosters, isolation plans, mask supplies.
New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern has called the country’s changing Covid strategy as a shift towards ‘individual armour’. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Epidemiologists and health experts say the shift to individual protection also has far more scope to leave people behind – those who either won’t, or can’t don their own armour. That includes children too young to be vaccinated, marginalised groups with less access to healthcare and lower vaccination rates, the immuno-compromised, and those with multiple health issues.

“The problem is that vaccine coverage is patterned by inequality,” says epidemiologist Michael Baker. So too, he says, are most protections against the pandemic: social distancing, access to high-quality masks, the ability to isolate.

“Despite this rhetoric about addressing inequities and attending to the needs of Māori and the concern that Māori and Pacific people are the most vulnerable, the reality is that we haven’t really implemented programmes effectively,” says associate professor and public health specialist Dr Colin Tukuitonga. “And so we saw for example, in the vaccination rollout, huge discrepancies with the lowest rates among Māori and Pacific people.”

Some of those inequities started to close when the government gave more control to Māori and Pacific providers, he said – but the same problems are now cropping up in the paediatric rollout, with uptake among Māori and Pācific children less than half the rate among European.

“Because potentially half of the population will get infected over the next few months, they are going to have poorer outcomes that are unfortunately now built in – because of the sequence of events and because of longstanding inequities,” says Baker.

‘The space rocket’s ready for launch’

“We’re aware that vaccination rates have been slower in our Māori and Pacific communities,” Hipkins said – and noted that his office would be meeting with Māori and Pacific groups this week, to see how they could improve. Asked if that was too little, too late, Hipkins says the government had been meeting with iwi (tribal) and Pacific health providers throughout the pandemic, and the current stage was a fine-tuning rather than a last-minute scramble.

“I guess I’d liken it to, say, even when the space rocket’s ready for launch, you can never triple-check enough to make sure that everything’s in place and that you have identified every last potential thing that might go wrong or that might need more work,” he says. Rocket enthusiasts might note that even double-checked vessels occasionally burst into flame upon liftoff, and public health experts have long been arguing that inequalities in the vaccine rollout may have devastating consequences.

“It’s an avoidable problem that people have been talking about since the pandemic started – we must address these inequities,” Baker says. “I think we have failed to do that.”

While some New Zealanders will be celebrating the lifting of border restrictions and the chance to celebrate with friends and family, others are anxious about what comes next. Hipkins says New Zealanders are prepared for the wave to come. “I think kiwis are at this stage now where they’re sort of saying, well, we know what’s coming. We’re ready. We kind of just want to get on with it and get to the other side. I think kiwis are ready for it.”

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