Covid-19 Omicron outbreak: New variants could arrive into NZ quickly when borders open – experts

New Zealand will be a sitting duck for every major new variant that emerges in the future because it will no longer have a buffer when the borders reopen next month.

From mid-next month vaccinated Australians are allowed back into the country without isolating, just in time for the Easter and school holidays.

While fully vaccinated travellers from visa-waiver countries – which include 60 countries such as Canada and the US – will be able to enter the country from 11.59pm on May 1.

But Dr David Welch, a senior Lecturer at Auckland University’s Centre for Computational Evolution and School of Computer Science, said lifting border restrictions meant that any new major variants that arise around the world will enter New Zealand fairly quickly and the Government will no longer have the luxury of time to watch and prepare.

“We will need to increase and improve our local surveillance efforts, including genomic surveillance of variants are circulating in the community.”

Welch said New Zealand’s genomic surveillance was struggling to cope under the high number of cases and as part of its ongoing response needed a gold-standard system to sequence most cases who were recent arrivals, most hospitalised cases, and a random sample of cases found in the community.

Covid-19 modeller professor Michael Plank agreed the Government needed a toolbox of sustainable measures to monitor the variants coming in.

While opening the borders was the right move and a huge milestone given New Zealand now had comparable levels of infection as other countries, it didn’ t mean the pandemic was over, he said.

One of these tools was testing international arrivals to keep a close eye on what was happening at the border so they could detect and respond to a new variant as quickly as possible.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the new dates today, saying the country was ready to welcome tourists back in.

Ardern said New Zealand was a safe place to visit, adding trans-Tasman travellers were crucial to the domestic tourism sector.

Australians would be able to arrive in time for the school holidays and boost the ski season, but visitor numbers would be lower than in 2019.

Travellers would be given negative rapid antigen test results as part of a welcome pack on their arrival into the country and should be prepared to isolate in one place if they fell ill.

Ardern said the system was likely to evolve in time, for example to consider how unvaccinated people overseas could visit New Zealand.

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