Media release: Public conversation needed about terms on which New Zealand could re-open say science, political and business leaders

Three of New Zealand’s most influential and trusted public figures are calling for a conversation now on a cohesive national ‘reconnection strategy’ to re-open New Zealand’s borders.

Former Chief Science Adviser to the Prime Minister Sir Peter Gluckman, former Prime Minister the Rt Hon Helen Clark and former Air New Zealand CEO Rob Fyfe say open conversations are needed about the right time for New Zealand to re-engage with the world – and how.

The trio joined forces to co-author a conversation paper, Re-engaging New Zealand with the world, with expert input from epidemiologist Sir David Skegg and digital contact tracing expert Dr Andrew Chen.

They say New Zealand needs an adaptable and pragmatic strategy to reopen the country safely and allow increased border flow.

“Is New Zealand prepared to hold in a state of near-total isolation for the indefinite future? This is not just affecting tourism and export education, but also the many ways in which New Zealand projects and leverages its place in the world,” the paper states.

Sir Peter, Director of Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland, says this country needs its global connectivity.

“Of course we want to keep the virus out. But it will not be too dangerous to start opening New Zealand in the near future if we have the right processes in place.”

Ms Clark says an informed public conversation would help shape how and to what extent to reopen New Zealand’s borders safely.

“Unfortunately there are huge implications for our nation’s economic and social wellbeing if we remain closed indefinitely,” she says.

Mr Fyfe says we have gained global recognition and significant international advantage through the success of our stringent lockdown and early elimination of the virus, but that is now under threat.

“We will rapidly progress to a position of relative disadvantage if our trading competitors are able to engage with our customers and suppliers in ways that are not possible for us,” he says.

The trio’s paper offers possible solutions such as establishing an intensive testing regime prior to departure for travellers from low-risk countries, adjusting quarantine methods for low-risk entrants, and allowing universities to provide quarantine for their international students.

It also says we need to reframe how New Zealand views the “elimination strategy” of no cases at all, to one that is in line with how many epidemiologists define it – which is reducing case-transmission to a “predetermined very low level”.

Sir Peter says the subtle distinction will help New Zealanders’ collective thinking about our path ahead. Rather than creating an expectation of keeping the virus out absolutely, he says we need to accept cases will inevitably occur, and processes need to be in place to make sure that community spread is not established.

“Otherwise we will be facing a very long period of isolation. Vaccines are likely to be developed, but they will not provide absolute protection,” he says.

The paper also calls for New Zealand to develop and adopt a much more effective automatic contact tracing system. It says a failure to replace the current, relatively ineffective, tracking system “may come to haunt us”.

“If we required such a tracing system for all incoming passengers and providing a large number of New Zealanders had adopted it, then we would have more alternatives, at least for low-risk entrants,” the report says.

The authors accept that the politically charged environment in the lead up to the national election in September may make border discussions difficult, but urge the Government to start an evidence-based transparent process towards planning for safe reopening.

“Taking the knowledge of the pandemic’s evolving behaviour into account, we must prioritise exploring the ways in which we can more completely re-engage with the world,” the paper says.

The paper is available here.