(Check against delivery)
E nga mana
E nga reo
E nga iwi
Tena kotou katoa
Ka huri ki nga mana whenua o te rohe nei. Tena koutou.
He mihi hoki ki a tatou kua tau mai nei I raro I te kaupapa o te raa.
No reira tena koutou katoa
Welcome to the Reconnecting New Zealanders to the World Forum, here at the National Library.
Today we will be discussing some of the big questions facing us as we continue to protect New Zealanders against COVID-19, while at the same time preparing to gradually and safely reopen to the world.
But before we begin, can I start by acknowledging the PM Jacinda Ardern, ministerial colleagues including the Minister for COVID-19 Response, Chris Hipkins and the chair of the Strategic COVID-19 Public Health Advisory Group Prof Sir David Skegg and all today’s speakers.
Yesterday we released three pieces of advice from Sir David and the Group – on the future of our COVID-19 Elimination Strategy and the idea of a phased re-opening of our borders.
You’ll hear directly from Sir David shortly about that work, but from my perspective it has been incredibly valuable. I want to thank the group for its ongoing contribution and sharing its expertise.
The role of science in our COVID-19 response
All the way through New Zealand’s response to the global pandemic the government has relied on expert scientific and public health advice.
And that approach has proven its worth time and time again.
We have sustained the world’s lowest number of cases and deaths, and enjoyed the fewest restrictions on every-day life.
From our alert level system, to our contact tracing system and managed isolation – we have used the best available evidence to keep New Zealanders safe, to protect our freedoms and protect our economy.
I do want to reflect on that for a moment, and in particular the phrase ‘the best available evidence’.
Our response has never stood still. As the virus changes and new evidence emerges, we adapt, learn and improve.
Our managed isolation system, for example, has been continually strengthened. As we learnt about airborne transmission we have altered ventilation systems and the personal protective equipment used by staff.
As new variants emerged we have responded to cases with short sharp alert level changes and large scale contact tracing – sometimes tracing over 2000 contacts per case.
All those decisions were informed by the best scientific evidence.
And of course it is the science of vaccination that is front and centre in our response to COVID-19 in this last year.
Using mRNA technology highly effective and safe vaccines have been developed, and New Zealand is one of only a handful of countries able to offer these to everyone.
In the last week more than 270,000 vaccinations have been delivered and our roll out plan is on track.
Completing the rollout, and getting as many people as possible protected, must remain our priority for the rest of this year.
Vaccination protects individuals, whanau and communities. And as our vaccination rates rise it presents us with fresh opportunities.
High levels of vaccination will help avoid the need for lockdowns – and the more people get vaccinated, the greater the possibilities for freer movement in the future.
How do we do that safely and with confidence is at the heart of today’s discussion.
Border controls and reconnecting New Zealanders
I don’t think it will surprise anyone here today that any changes to our border controls will be gradual and deliberate.
Modelling by Te Puna Matatini, performed prior to the characterisation of the delta variant, finds no realistic level of vaccination coverage above which the virus can’t be transmitted in the community. However, there certainly is a level at which outbreaks become smaller and easier to control.
Alongside high levels of vaccination we will need to continue public health measures like contact tracing and large scale testing for a long time to come.
One last thought before I hand back to Dame Juliet Gerrard.
Despite our successful response the last year and a half has not been easy.
We all want to know what lies ahead, and when we can travel for work, family and fun like we used too.
The difficult truth is that we can’t provide absolute certainty.
This situation reminds me of many encounters with patients with life threatening illnesses who would naturally ask me what their future looked like.
But being expert in their illness I knew their path ahead was uncertain.
There is a risk to providing false certainty and false hope.
Disease is unpredictable and doctors who make promises they can’t keep end up undermining the trust of their patients, trust that is crucial to the success of ongoing treatment.
This virus has mutated and evolved over the last year.
As a government we can’t use yesterday’s evidence to predict where we will be in 6 months’ time.
But we can set out a framework for how we will respond to changing circumstances – and how we will continue to use the best available evidence to inform our approach.
One thing that will not change, however, is that our decisions will be driven by the same desire to keep New Zealanders safe that has characterised our response to Covid-19 throughout.