New Zealand’s South Island records first Covid cases in major city in over a year

Experts called for stronger protections between North and South Islands after news that one case had recently arrived from Auckland

New Zealand’s South Island has recorded its first Covid cases in a major city in over a year, with two cases detected in Christchurch, as the government announced it will begin relaxing its strict international border settings.

Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said at this stage there would be no snap lockdown for the city, the largest in the South Island, despite the fact one of the cases may have been infectious in the community for almost two weeks.

“This is a good reminder to people around the country that cases can pop up and this highlights the importance to get vaccinated,” Hipkins said.

Both of Thursday’s new cases were members of the same household, and one had recently returned from Auckland.

New Zealand announced 89 new cases of Covid-19 on Thursday, including the two in Christchurch. According to the Ministry of Health, 89% of eligible adults in Canterbury, of which Christchurch is the main city, had had at least one dose of the vaccine, and 67% had had both doses. The region would require almost 111,000 people to get both doses before hitting the 90% target set by the government, where most restrictions can be lifted. Across the country, 85% of the eligible population (those aged 12 and over) have had at least one dose of the vaccine, or 72% of the full population; 70% of the eligible population have had both doses, or 60% of the full population.

Epidemiologist and public health prof Michael Baker said there needed to be stronger protections at the boundaries of the North and South Islands. “We may be seeding the whole South Island with cases right at the moment, because we’ve got increasing transmission in Auckland, and still people flying from Auckland all around the country – and we’ve got limited controls on that,” he said. Baker called for pre-departure testing, and for vaccine requirements on domestic flights.

Dr Apisalome Talemaitoga, chair of the Pasifika GP network, said via the Science Media Centre, “I just find it unbelievable that we are allowing unvaccinated people out of Auckland to travel – for whatever reason. People should be doubly vaccinated before they can do this.”

With the region still weeks away from 90% vaccination, Baker said there were “huge health and economic reasons for delaying widespread transmission in the South Island as long as possible”. Otherwise, he said, the region could end up facing restrictions or possible lockdowns until Christmas.

Hipkins said that the two infected people were co-operating with authorities but had not been scanning in using New Zealand’s location tracing app – a detail which may make contact tracing more difficult. Both are unvaccinated.

Giving a later update, the minister said that quarantine requirements for international arrivals would be eased next month.

“As vaccination rates have increased internationally, the number of Covid cases being picked up through our MIQ [managed isolation and quarantine] facilities has continued to decline. We now only get 2-3 cases per 1,000 arrivals and only around 1 in 2,000 is detected after seven days of isolation,” Hipkins said.

From 14 November, MIQ stays will be reduced from 14 days to seven, with travellers being tested on days zero, three and six. They will then isolate at home for short periods of around three days, and be tested again on day nine.

This will likely free up about 1,500 rooms a month in MIQ, Hipkins said. Some of this will be taken up by community cases but some will go into the booking system for travellers from overseas.

On 8 November, travellers from low-risk countries, starting with some Pacific islands, will be allowed to bypass MIQ altogether. Travellers will need to be fully vaccinated, unless they are New Zealand citizens.

In the first quarter of 2022, increasing numbers of fully vaccinated international travellers will be able to skip quarantine and self-isolate. This step in the new MIQ regime will be dependent upon the country transitioning to its new traffic light system.

Hipkins said: “My message to all New Zealanders, whether they’re here or abroad is a very, very simple one. Get vaccinated. Then we can all get back to doing the things that we love and to seeing the people that we love.”

But New Zealanders stranded overseas and desperate to get home are feeling dissatisfied with the announcement.

Rikki Sands, a New Zealand citizen based in Brisbane, has entered the MIQ lottery 4 times without success. Sands, who is a specialised mechanical and hydraulic engineer, his wife and two daughters have been planning to come home since the beginning of the year.

“I’ve got more chance of winning lotto than an MIQ spot at the moment,” Sands said.

He said the freeing up of 1,500 more MIQ spots was negligible, and did not give him any confidence he would get home sooner.

And he believes the justifications are unfair. “They said that the reason they can’t open the borders is because the local people aren’t getting vaccinated. But some of the ones that are coming in internationally are all going to be double vaccinated.

“Our family is all double-vaxxed and coming from Brisbane, Australia, which is a very low risk area, and we will be getting whatever tests are required before we fly. We just want to get home to our whānau [family].”


Tess McClure in Christchurch

The GuardianTramp

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