New Zealand closes borders to new arrivals over ‘unprecedented’ Omicron risk

New Zealand has temporarily cut off the only pathway home for overseas citizens and visa holders, citing the risk of the Omicron variant.

Officials announced on Tuesday evening that new spaces in the country’s managed isolation and quarantine system (MIQ) would not be released.

Photograph: ReutersThe Covid-19 response minister, Chris Hipkins, said on Wednesday that while the pause was “temporary” there was no date for when spaces would again be available, meaning New Zealand’s border would be closed for an indeterminate time to citizens without an existing booking.

“Pausing the next MIQ lobby is a temporary position while MIQ is under extreme pressure from New Zealanders returning with Omicron,” he said.

“No decisions have been made on the date, sequence and conditions for the border reopening and cabinet will consider options within the next couple of weeks based on the most up to date advice. Until then, we are not in a position to release more MIQ rooms.”

The MIQ head, Chris Bunny, said there had been an “unprecedented number of Omicron cases coming into New Zealand and MIQ”, with a tenfold increase in cases at the border compared with December, and a seven day rolling average of 33.

On Wednesday, New Zealand recorded 24 new cases in the community. One of those cases has been confirmed as Omicron, a household contact of an MIQ worker. Separately, an airport worker tested positive on Wednesday.

New Zealand’s tough border restrictions have been crucial to its avoiding an Omicron outbreak and keeping Covid-19 cases extremely low, but they are also a source of increasing heartache and rage for those who have found themselves locked out, often in extremely difficult personal circumstances.

Other than the risky path of chartering a boat across the Tasman sea, securing a spot in MIQ is the only way into New Zealand. Competition for the rooms, which are released via a lottery system, is fierce. At the last release in early January, a queue of 16,000 people were vying to book one of 1,250 available rooms.

For those stranded overseas, the cancellation of future releases was distressing. Maxine Strydom, a member of Grounded Kiwis, which advocates for stranded New Zealanders, said she was stuck in Perth with her two children, and had been unable to secure a spot, despite her job and tenancy in Australia ending.

“All of us stranded overseas are affected. We’re all going through mental and emotional stress,” she said. “Soon I’m going to have no money, no house, and no help in a foreign country.”

Claire, a New Zealander in San Diego, said: “I feel like every shred of hope has been stripped away … There is no end in sight, it’s just demoralising.” Claire asked to be referred to by first name only amid concerns about criticism by fellow New Zealanders, most of whom have favoured border restrictions.

Prof Paula Lorgelly, a health economist based in the UK, had been trying to plan her return home since 2021. She praised the New Zealand government’s overall Covid response, but said at a personal level the cancellations had been difficult. “I’m kind of resigned to waiting,” she said. “[I hope] that it’s a short-term pain for what I perceive to be quite a long-term gain.”

The government had previously announced plans to begin a staggered reopening of the border for vaccinated travellers in mid-February. With the emergence of Omicron, however, that plan has been pushed out, and no alternative date announced for when border restrictions may ease.

The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said this week it was only a matter of time before an Omicron outbreak cracked through New Zealand’s border – and the country needed to use this window to push vaccination rates as high as possible. About 80% of New Zealand’s total population has had one dose, and 78% are fully vaccinated.

Hipkins said New Zealand would use the time that the border stayed closed to increase vaccination. “Our focus will be on getting booster rates up and immunising as many five to 11-year-olds as possible before Omicron takes hold in the community.”

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