New Zealand hopes to relax border controls next year

By: AFP      Published: 10:50 AM, 12 Aug, 2021
New Zealand hopes to relax border controls next year
Representational image.

New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern said Thursday that strict border controls would remain this year but she hoped to cautiously reopen to the rest of the world in 2022 while maintaining the country's virus-free status.

She said the changes would be "careful and deliberate" to avoid allowing variants such as the highly contagious Delta strain into New Zealand, where there is no local transmission and domestic life is close to normal.

"Rushing could see us in the situation many other countries are finding themselves in," she said, citing an outbreak of the Delta variant in neighbouring Australia that has forced its two largest cities into renewed lockdown.

Ardern won widespread praise for her decisive early response to the pandemic, resulting in just 26 deaths in a population of five million.

But New Zealand's vaccine rollout has been less stellar, with under 20 percent of the population fully inoculated.

The centre-left leader has faced calls to ease border measures from sectors such as healthcare, hospitality and agriculture, which are facing acute labour shortages due to the absence of foreign workers.

Ardern said vaccinations would ramp up with the goal of offering jabs to all the eligible population by year's end, allowing a relaxation of border policies. 

Under the proposed changes, international arrivals would be assessed on vaccination status and whether they have travelled from a country deemed high, medium or low risk.

They could face the full two-week quarantine, a shorter period of isolation, home isolation or quarantine-free entry if they are vaccinated and come from a low-risk country.

"Our ultimate goal is to get to quarantine-free travel for all vaccinated travellers," Ardern said, without providing a timetable.

She said international travel would never be the same as it was before the pandemic.

"Vaccines, border testing and maybe a bit of monitoring of symptoms when you travel will eventually become our baseline. And we will get used to it," she said.

New Zealand's tentative attempts to relax border controls have so far met with mixed success.

A travel bubble with Australia faced numerous disruptions and was finally suspended in June as multiple outbreaks spread across the Tasman Sea.

Quarantine-free travel is allowed with the tiny Cook Islands, and New Zealand this month launched a scheme to bring in seasonal workers from Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu without having to self-isolate.

California mandates vaccines for all teachers

All teachers in California will have to be vaccinated against Covid-19 or submit to weekly virus tests, the state's governor announced Wednesday, as authorities grapple with exploding infection rates.

The number of people testing positive for the disease has surged across the United States in recent weeks, with the highly infectious Delta variant blamed for the bulk of new cases.

That has worried parents and educators as the most populous state in the country readies to send its largely unvaccinated children back into classrooms for the new school year.

"To give parents confidence that their children are safe as schools return to full, in-person learning, we are urging all school staff to get vaccinated," Gavin Newsom said.

"Vaccinations are how we will end this pandemic. As a father, I look forward to the start of the school year and seeing all California kids back in the classroom."

As it was for many children around the world, last school year in California was badly interrupted, with classes moved online, and many children without adequate internet connections missing out on huge chunks of their education.

Along with the rest of the country, the state managed to tame the worst of its coronavirus outbreak earlier this year and life is largely back to normal.

But the return to in-person learning for this academic year has been imperiled by growing infections; more than 10,000 new cases are being recorded every day in the state -- a ten-fold increase over two months.

Doctors say these infections are chiefly among the unvaccinated.

Vaccinations are free and widely available in the United States.

- Losing patience -

The order announced Wednesday -- the first such state-wide mandate in the country -- applies to public and private schools, and puts the onus on administrators to ensure either that staff are fully vaccinated, or that they undergo Covid-19 tests at least once a week.

Parent groups welcomed the move.

"We want to do everything possible to protect our most vulnerable children and ensure that all children can return to school as safely as possible," said California State PTA President Carol Green. 

"We stand by our position that educators are essential workers and support the safe opening of schools to in-person instruction."

Around two-thirds of Californians over the age of 12 have been fully vaccinated, according to the state's health department.

Children under that age are not eligible for the shots.

Vaccinations are a divisive issue in the United States, largely along party-political lines, with the left overwhelmingly in favor and sections of the right opposed.

Take up of the vaccines varies widely across the country, and is particularly poor in the South, but there are growing signs that government and business is running out of patience with vaccine hold-outs.

The Pentagon this week announced it would make vaccines mandatory for all service personnel by next month.

New York City will soon require proof of vaccination for people attending indoor venues like gyms and restaurants, while Los Angeles appears to be moving the same way.

California has already told all of its public healthcare workers that they must be innoculated.

Major employers like United Airlines, investment bank Morgan Stanley, meat producer Tyson Foods and tech giants like Microsoft have all demanded employees get a shot.

Italy this month said teachers had to have a Green Pass, which shows either that they have been vaccinated, have tested negative for coronavirus or have recovered from a bout.