Epidemiologist wants border restrictions, but ACT Leader differs

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Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker (RNZ Photo by Samuel Rillstone)

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Wellington, January 22, 2022

Border restrictions are still needed, and MIQ will remain valuable even if Omicron is spreading widely in the community, Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker has said but his views were opposite to that of ACT Party Leader David Seymour.

Mr Seymour called on the government to relax border restrictions and end its effective ban on travel to New Zealand.

He referred to the advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The WHO advised against implementing blanket travel bans, saying that they were not effective in suppressing the international spread of Omicron but discouraged rapid reporting of new variants.

Border closures not useful

Mr Seymour would not go so far as to say that borders should open immediately but believes that the government should make it clear that border closures will not be useful once Omicron spreads widely within New Zealand.

“ACT believes that we should allow people to self-isolate. That may bring forward the release of Omicron into the community but equally, it may escape MIQ it may have already. Once we get to a stage where you are just as likely to catch it from someone at Countdown as you are from someone off a plane, it will not make sense to have isolation for non-infected travellers at all,” he said.

Mr Seymour asked as to when the New Zealand government will point out the obvious that when Omicron is widely circulating within our borders, we will no longer get a benefit from holding citizens outside their own country or putting them through the torture of MIQ?

He said people like Professor Michael Baker from the University of Otago were correct to say that closing the border could buy time, but it was now “far too late” for that.

Michael Baker on restrictions

Professor Baker said the WHO had made similar statements before with sound reasoning, but MIQ and border restrictions had proven very valuable in the past.

“The restrictions on movement are often used by countries for their own ends, sometimes to exclude movement of people unnecessarily, and also even … as a weapon for international diplomacy. But for outbreak control and pandemic control, managing borders has been incredibly effective,” he said.

ACT Party Leader David Seymour (RNZ Photo by Samuel Rillstone)

According to Professor Baker, this approach of managing borders has worked extremely well in the Asia Pacific region, especially during the first stage of the pandemic when we didn’t have effective vaccines, saving millions of lives.

He acknowledged that Omicron was changing the risk-benefit calculation but maintained that there was value in delaying its arrival to allow for better preparation.

“Omicron is highly infectious and causes less severe illness but the balance has shifted … at the moment, we are obviously trying to delay its arrival but when it starts circulating we are moving to a mitigation approach. We have so many people arriving into New Zealand every day with Omicron, the average has moved up to 40 a day and hence a leak from MIQ or through crew is likely at this point,” he said.

Professor Baker said that once New Zealand is highly infected with Omicron as in other countries, border management and MIQ will be reviewed.

But MIQ will remain a useful tool for New Zealand in future, for two reasons, he said.

“Firstly, it is still a place where people who are active in the community can be looked after in a more supported environment without going to the hospital and secondly, we have not seen the end of Covid-19 variants. We are going to get more surprises in the future, hence the need for maintaining our MIQ capacity at least for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Professor Baker said that greater access to high-quality masks like N95s, along with increased use of rapid antigen testing in some situations, could also help support New Zealand’s health response if Omicron was spreading widely.

Mr Seymour appeared to agree with that timeframe, with some provisos.

“We should allow people to enter New Zealand in a circumstance where community transmission is widespread in New Zealand. I don’t think that we should try to bring it forward

except that we should be saying that doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals should be able to skip MIQ now because we are going to need them tomorrow,” he said.

-Published under a Special Agreement with www.rnz.co.nz

 

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