Watch: Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins reveals travel ban for ‘very high risk countries’

New Zealand permanent residents from four countries where Covid is rampant will be blocked from coming directly to New Zealand under changes designed to reduce the number of infected arrivals.

New Zealand citizens, their parents, and partners and children of Kiwi citizens will still be able to come home from those countries – India, Brazil, Pakistan and Papua New Guinea.

The new rules – effective from midnight next Wednesday, April 28 – are expected to reduce the number of travelers to New Zealand from those countries by 75 per cent, while also respecting the right of citizens abroad to come home.

It means there will be about 140 fewer arrivals per week from India compared to the volume of traffic from the start of March up until mid-April.

NZ permanent residents in those four countries will still be able to come to New Zealand, but will have to spend at least 14 days in a non-very-high-risk-country before coming to New Zealand.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins, in announcing the changes, said it was always difficult to balance travel restrictions with the plight of people who are in countries struggling to cope with the virus.

“The Government does not make these decisions lightly. We realise they impact on people’s freedoms.

“There will be an exceptions process on humanitarian grounds.”

He said permanent residents had countries other than New Zealand they called home.

“The fewer the cases coming in though, the lower the risk will be.”

Arrivals will also be kept in cohorts of flights that arrive in a 96-hour window. Cohorts will be sent to an MIQ facility until it is full, and then will be locked down for two weeks.

This will prevent any potential mixing and mingling among those about to leave MIQ with those who have just arrived.

Very high risk countries are those that have more than 50 cases per thousand arrivals in New Zealand, and have more than 15 arrivals per month.

The proportion of people from India testing positive in recent weeks has been between 100 and 150 per thousand.

It comes as part of the Government response after it banned flights to and from India two weeks ago to stem the tide of infected passengers arriving with Covid-19.

Hipkins said the border is the first line of defence against Covid-19, and about 135,000 people had arrived in New Zealand during the pandemic – including about 800 cases.

“It has been very successful.”

But the system was always being looked at to minimise the risk of the virus spreading, he said.

“A travel restriction can help us to manage that risk.”

Numbers of infected returnees travelling from the sub-continent surged in New Zealand earlier this month despite pre-departure testing.

It’s estimated cases in India have almost tripled since the travel suspension was announced.

Even yesterday, the Ministry of Health reported a new case detected on day 17 that was connected to a person who arrived from India before the travel ban was enforced.

The world’s second-most populous country is struggling with a second wave, raising more fears about its overwhelmed health care system.

It has close to 16 million confirmed cases, second only to the US.

Hipkins said travellers from the US and the UK were 10 times less likely to have Covid-19 when they arrive in New Zealand than those from the very high risk countries.

New cohort rules from May 16

The new cohorting rules will come into effect from May 16 – although five MIQ facilities had already adopted them.

The 96-hour cohorting will apply to planeloads of people, rather than their country of departure.

The MIQ facility will then be locked down for 14 days once it is full. This will mean there will be some free rooms, given how unlikely it is that planeloads of people will perfectly fit with the number of available rooms.

He said 10 to 15 per cent of the 4000-per-fortnight MIQ rooms will be empty because of the cohort changes.

Most of the MIQ facilities are suitable for housing the cohorts, he said, but because negotiations were ongoing he did not want to go into which ones weren’t suitable.

Across the globe, countries are bringing in stricter rules affecting travel to and from India amid fears over the rising cases.

Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the number of flights between the two countries would be cut, while the UK has added India to a red list, restricting travel and bringing in hotel quarantine for all arrivals from India from today.

This week the Prime Minister said continuing the India ban was not being entertained for New Zealand citizens.

“We can’t deem someone stateless. If a New Zealander is abroad, the only legal place they’re able to reside, by default, is New Zealand. So we need to enable them to be able to travel home if they need to,” said Jacinda Ardern.

“We have Bora (Bill of Rights Act) obligations that we need to maintain.”

India is shattering global infection records, with 15.9 million cases and 184,657 deaths.

The latest surge has driven India’s fragile health systems to breaking point, with understaffed hospitals overflowing with patients. Medical oxygen is in short supply and intensive care units are full.

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