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Source: New Zealand Parliament – Hansard

ORAL QUESTIONS

QUESTIONS TO MINISTERS

Question No. 1—Prime Minister

1. Hon JUDITH COLLINS (Leader of the Opposition) to the Prime Minister: Does she stand by her Government’s plan to reopen our borders, and by when will the almost 25,000 people who missed out on MIQ spaces yesterday be able to come home?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN (Prime Minister): Yes. I stand by the Government’s plan to reconnect New Zealanders with the world, which many will remember was released in August of this year. In particular, I stand by the plan’s objectives to stamp out the virus, reduce the need for further lockdowns, maintain strong public health tools, and develop ways for people to travel safely to and from New Zealand. I know how hard it has been for those New Zealanders wanting to travel back to New Zealand at a time when there have been severe constraints on our managed isolation system. And while an extra 6,000 people were able to book spaces last night, in addition to the existing 12,000 already booked till Christmas, that is why we have a plan to move past managed isolation, which we’ve signalled for the first quarter of 2022. But no New Zealander wants to travel to New Zealand and put their fellow Kiwis at risk, and that’s why we have a plan to open the borders in a safe way that doesn’t mean more restrictions at home than is necessary.

Hon Judith Collins: Why has she still not told New Zealanders the rate of vaccination that will allow us to reconnect with the world?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: We’ve talked about the need for high vaccinations at 90-plus. We’ve also talked about a time frame—the first quarter of 2022. We’ve been doing that since the beginning of last month when we released—on the advice of Professor David Skegg and his public health advisory group—our reconnecting to New Zealand plan. I note the member has taken a different view. She believes that we should adopt what is a broadly similar framework but much earlier. That runs the risk of having cases at our border unchecked when we have over, roughly, 1.5 million New Zealanders unvaccinated. It is, however, up to the member to justify her own plans.

Hon Judith Collins: What does she mean by “as high as possible”?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: That the more New Zealanders who are vaccinated, the less likely it is that we’ll need domestic restrictions, and the less likely it is that we’ll see hospitalisations that could have been prevented. I’m not alone in talking about 90-plus. That is where you’ll see the vast majority of health experts who choose to be named talking about vaccination rates. I note in the National Party plan there is no reflection of the kinds of local restrictions that would be needed with the plan that’s been presented today, because there is no question that there would be cases seeded at the border. All modelling that is undertaken suggests that would be likely, whether it’s Doherty or whether it’s Hendy, but I see nothing other than mask use to suggest there’d be any—

Chris Bishop: No. Read the plan.

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: —domestic restrictions to manage those likely cases.

Chris Bishop: Ha, ha!

Hon Judith Collins: When will she tell—

SPEAKER: Order! Mr Bishop.

Hon Judith Collins: When will she tell New Zealanders what requirements someone coming from a low-risk country will have when flying home to New Zealand?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: I refer the member to the reconnecting to New Zealand plan, which the member probably would be able to answer that question herself, seeing her plan seems to draw on it. It has three pathways: low, medium, and risk. For those low-risk countries where they have—essentially, where they are free of COVID, then they would be able to travel, essentially, with no isolation requirements. For those from medium-risk countries—and they’re vaccinated—there would be modified isolation requirements. The difference between the Government’s plan is that we have talked about high vaccination rates in the first quarter of 2022. We have also prioritised New Zealanders here not facing undue and unnecessary additional restrictions to manage what would inevitably be a rate of seeded cases at the border. I refer the member to Canada. They removed all border restrictions for citizens who are double vaccinated, and, in some cases, they are facing a significant fourth wave, and it has meant that they have domestic restrictions. There is no free lunch. You do have to make trade-offs. We’ve decided to prioritise domestically trying to get the settings as low as possible for New Zealanders, and, in time we will see changes at our border as well.

Hon Judith Collins: Does she consider it a free lunch, then, for New Zealanders who are overseas being forced to watch dying family members take their final breaths by Zoom, because her Government was so slow to get the vaccine rolled out?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: I really reject the member’s statement there. All of those situations are incredibly difficult, and every member in this House will have sympathy for family members who have been separated by COVID the world over. We do have a process that enables, in those situations, New Zealanders to get to the top of any wait-list to be able to make it home to see their family members. So I would, rather than put out information that implies otherwise, I would rather those New Zealanders know: please get in touch with the Ministry of Health if you have a situation like that so they can support you home.

Hon Judith Collins: Will her reopening plan allow double-vaccinated Kiwis in countries with low levels of COVID to come home for Christmas without needing to win the managed isolation and quarantine lottery?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Under that member’s plan, I’d be interested in what she defines as “low level”. We have already done so; we released it in August. But one of those green zones, as the member will be aware, was Australia. Things dramatically changed there and that obviously moved into a high-risk category. We have had the Cook Islands able to enter into New Zealand, but, of course, they’ve chosen to shut off to us. Where it has been low-risk, we have opened. In October, we will be reopening for Recognised Seasonal Employer workers from Vanuatu, Tonga, and Samoa. Where it’s low risk, we have opened, but, as it turns out, very few countries in this world right now are low risk.

Hon Chris Hipkins: To the Prime Minister, which does she think New Zealanders would prefer: a COVID-free Christmas or reopening the borders early and getting COVID for Christmas?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Essentially, this is where, obviously, the National Party’s put their penny down. They’ve decided to move forward the border opening. Our view has been to get the restrictions right domestically, try and give New Zealanders as much freedom as possible, get those vaccination rates up so the impact of border openings is lessened, and move in the first quarter of 2022.

Hon Judith Collins: If her plan is to have as many people vaccinated as possible in the first half of next year but no particular number based on that before she can reopen, then why can’t she just get more people vaccinated now so Kiwis can come home for Christmas?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: I reject the premise of that member’s question. But also, as we have traversed in this House many a time, vaccinations are currently available and ready for every single New Zealander right now. But if the member may choose to look around globally, every single country around the world, once they get to high rates, it does get harder. That is why we have already overtaken the United States on first doses, who has had vaccine available for months. Because there are some members of our population who choose not to be vaccinated, that’s the group I would hope everyone in this House would unite behind assisting to see the benefits of vaccine.

Hon Judith Collins: So under her Government’s plan, what happens when we get to the first part of next year and the vaccination rate hasn’t gone up into over 90 percent?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Of course, as we’ve said, our view is that we can get to those high rates, our view is that we can do it within a reasonable time frame, but our view still is that in the first quarter of 2022 is a more likely time frame for being able to move on the border. But also I would caution the member that if she chooses to look at any international evidence—if she chooses to—she’ll see that most countries have moved on the border last. It is the last lever they pull, rather than the first lever. So rather than assessing the impact of vaccination on COVID rates, ensuring you’ve got your domestic settings right and protecting New Zealanders at home, the member instead wants to open the floodgate without getting it right first. That is rushed and it is risky.

David Seymour: Is the Prime Minister meaning to say that the border can’t be opened because, after 18 months, her Government’s still far from getting the domestic settings right?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: No—absolutely not. But if the member thinks that domestic settings based on Alpha would be any good right now, then obviously he hasn’t looked at what’s happening around the world. In fact, the settings for vaccine under Alpha are vastly different to now. You have to adapt, and the benefit of the New Zealand approach has been that we’ve done that and we’ve done it very successfully.

David Seymour: Has the Prime Minister only just realised that there are new variants of COVID; and, if not, why is she so unprepared for them?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Mr Speaker, do I even have to answer that?

SPEAKER: Well, I mean, I could have ruled it out for irony. The member, I think, knew that I could have ruled it out for irony, but I think the Prime Minister’s absolutely capable of answering.

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Of course the entire global community is aware of the range of variants that exist. But if the member is suggesting that we can base a research and evidence-based approach on a variant where most of the research around transmissibility, around infectivity, and around hospitalisation has only emerged since the latter part of this year.

Hon Grant Robertson: Further to the last supplementary question, is the Prime Minister aware of a document released yesterday that said that the Government was prepared for a new variant—released by the ACT Party?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: I am, but I’m no longer looking for any consistency in any Opposition’s plans on COVID.

Hon Judith Collins: Isn’t the biggest risk to New Zealand the fact that she delivered the slowest vaccine roll-out in the developed world while failing to invest in our health system to prepare for Delta?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: I absolutely reject that, and also, again, as I’ve just said in a previous answer, we’ve now surpassed on first doses the likes of the United States. We’ve had the highest rate of vaccination per capita of any of the countries we would compare ourselves to. And while we’re at it, we’ve had the lowest case rates, the lowest hospitalisations, the lowest death rates, and some of the best economic performance in the world. The member cannot rewrite history. Our approach has been successful. The point is that COVID is tough on everyone and it’s not finished.

Hon Judith Collins: So if she rejects that assertion, then which country is the slowest in the developed world?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: As I’ve just said, we have passed the countries the member has consistently compared us to.

MIL OSI