Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Self-isolation pilot welcomed, but still fears about Delta’s ‘long tail’

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A home-isolation trial for some business travellers has been welcomed as the “first crack” at reopening our borders – but an expert warns it could mean little if the “long tail” of Auckland’s outbreak is not stamped out.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said self-isolation is being considered as a future option in advance of a highly vaccinated public.

But, before the country gets to that stage a trial involving 150 fully vaccinated travellers who can bypass MIQ and isolate at home will start at the end of October and run for about six weeks.

It would be coupled with a testing and monitoring regime and travellers wouldn’t be able to leave their homes, or have anyone else there unless they too had travelled as part of the same party.

Ardern said the move was an indication of where the Government wanted to go in the future. She was also looking at shorter periods of isolation for some.

“All of this will help with the bottlenecks, which have kept our borders safe.”

The announcement has been welcomed with open arms by Auckland Business Chamber CEO Michael Barnett, who predicted businesses “locked in New Zealand or marooned overseas and locked out of MIQ will leap at the opportunity” to participate in the trial.

He said the pilot programme was “the first crack to open the borders safely” for struggling businesses “desperate to get back in the market”.

Barnett predicted there won’t be any setbacks as a result of the trial, even as Auckland still battles to eliminate the latest Delta outbreak.

“They have skin in the game and every business, especially the trailblazers of this trial, will want to show that they recognise that the ability to travel while New Zealand is living with restrictions to eliminate Covid is a privilege,” he said.

Epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker said it was good to see the self-isolation trial under way, but cautioned how much could be learned from it.

“To really do a proper study you need to do it on a much bigger scale. This will be very low-risk, but it will show how the mechanics could work.

“The real question will be how it works when scaled up to tens of thousands of people.”

He said low-risk countries to be involved could include Covid-free states in Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China.

The bigger question though was where New Zealand was at next year with the virus and if it was still circulating here, along with vaccination levels, he said.

“If we are still in a situation of little or no transmission, so still elimination, compared to endemic spread of the virus. Those things will determine our tolerance for the virus coming in.”

It is still not clear if the Auckland outbreak was under control and any effects of the change to level 3 would be seen in the coming days.

Director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said the seven-day rolling average of Covid cases in NZ was now 15, compared with 17 last week and 19 the week before.

“We are making progress. Many of our clusters are now considered to be contained, or clusters are dormant,” Bloomfield said.

Baker said it was clear the virus was now continuing to transmit among specific groups and there needed to be a much more targeted approach to stamping out the virus quickly.

“We are on a knife-edge at the moment.”

Without a targeted approach, Baker said, Auckland could be hovering between level 2 and level 3 for some time.

Act leader David Seymour criticised the length of time it has taken to trial self-isolation, saying nothing has changed in the past six months and the Government was being driven by public opinion research instead of science.

“We should be up to thousands of travellers per week on a self-isolation scheme like this. The whole of Auckland has been self-isolating for the past seven weeks. Announcing 150 travellers will self-isolate after travelling is hardly news to them.

“A business travel network was first proposed by Act in March as part of our Covid 2.0 paper when we said, ‘The Business Travel Network would establish special requirements for business travellers to come here while safely managing the risk of Covid-19.'”

He said Act’s policy also had a traffic light system and special testing requirements.

Meanwhile, the plan to reopen quarantine-free travel for RSE workers from the Pacific will start again with Vanuatu from early October, Ardern said.

All those taking part from Vanuatu, Samoa and Tonga would need at least one vaccine dose.

Ardern said it allowed a trial of a “pseudo” form of shortened isolation for some travellers.

RSE workers will also have to isolate for seven days on arrival, but this does not need to be done at an MIQ facility.

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