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Omicron outbreak spurs NZ into border shake-up

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New Zealand is to shake up its border plan, watering down a previous reopening strategy that could mean the Kiwi diaspora is allowed home sooner.

Monday marks the start of the government’s “reconnections” strategy, which allows New Zealanders travelling from Australia to self-isolate on arrival rather than spending a week in hotel quarantine.

Thousands of the estimated 700,000 Kiwis in Australia are expected to jump on planes this week after previously being locked out by the border settings.

The reopening for Australian-based Kiwis is the first step of a phased border plan announced earlier in February. Those further abroad, critical workers, and eventually foreign nationals were also eventually intended to avoid the dreaded stay in hotel quarantine and instead self-isolate for a week when they land.

However, the arrival of Omicron in New Zealand could mean that week-long stay in self-isolation is phased out too.

With 28,000 community cases announced on the weekend, and just 47 at the border, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government is considering whether to allow freer movement at the border.

“With so many cases in New Zealand now it makes sense to look at those settings,” she told Radio NZ.

Ms Ardern asked a panel of public health experts, led by epidemiologist Sir David Skegg, for their feedback.

“Cabinet will discuss and make decisions today,” she said.

“I’ll be giving an indication of those decisions at post-cabinet [press conference] this afternoon.”

Possible outcomes would be a shorter self-isolation stay, a shorter timetable to allow more in sooner, or – while unlikely – the abolition of self-isolation entirely.

Ms Ardern will announce her government’s decision at 4pm NZDT (2pm AEDT).

The quarantine policy has been deeply controversial in New Zealand, as it prevented Kiwis from free entry into their own country, a legal entitlement conferred to them in the bill of rights.

The hard border has also helped New Zealand navigate the COVID-19 pandemic with the lowest case count, hospitalisation rate and death toll in the developed world.

Opposition parties National and ACT have urged the government to drop quarantine and self-isolation provisions for some time.

Opposition Leader Chris Luxon, a former chief executive of Air New Zealand, had led the charge to get planes flying again.

“Isolating ourselves has been challenging for Kiwis,” he said at the weekend.

“From the families that couldn’t see loved ones, to the hospitality businesses who don’t have any international customers – Kiwis are hurting.

“People arriving into New Zealand should have to take a test on arrival. If positive they should isolate. If not then they should be free to go about their business.

“It’s time to re-engage with the world.”

-AAP

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