Kia ora koutou katoa
It is an honour to be hosted by Mind Lab in conjunction with Business New Zealand today. A special thank you and acknowledgement to CEO, Frances Valintine.
I recall first meeting Frances several years ago when she was chief executive of the media design school. It would be fair to say that those several years now feel like another lifetime entirely.
And that’s probably because many of us feel like time is in two parts. There was life before, and now life with Covid.
But that also means there will be life after Covid too. A life where we have adapted. Where we have some normality back, and where the weather can once again take its rightful place as our primary topic of conversation.
We are well on our way to reaching that destination. We’re just not quite there yet.
Today I want to talk about the next set of changes that will take us a long way on that journey back to a new normal, and that is our reconnection with the world.
I can vividly remember the early days of the Covid pandemic. I recall the emergency cabinet meeting where we discussed the very first border closure – which in the first stages was country by country. I remember the moment we decided to require every traveller to self-isolate. I remember the cases that arose from people who then didn’t self-isolate. And I remember the establishment of our managed isolation and quarantine system on the 10th of April almost two years ago.
It’s easy to hear the word MIQ and immediately associate it with heartache. There is no question, that for New Zealand, it has been one of the hardest parts of the pandemic. But the reason that it is right up there as one of the toughest things we have experienced, is in part because large-scale loss of life is not.
The anguish of MIQ has been real, and heart breaking. But the choice to use it, undeniably saved lives.
Some of the letters I have received over the past two years have summed up the hard trade-off that had to be made. One just this summer captured that well. It said: “As a kiwi living in Japan I was sitting in my 2-plus year remote work home, thinking of the happy day when I could fly back and see my family when it made me wonder if anyone took the time to say thank you. While I desperately want to return and visit my retired folks, I am heartened by the rules and guidelines in place… Thanks for keeping them all safe.”
MIQ meant not everyone could come home when they wanted to. But it also meant that Covid could not come in when it wanted to, either.
And that’s meant we have been able to build our defences.
To become one of the most vaccinated countries in the world.
To set up public health measures that we know work.
To get our children vaccinated and our adults boosted.
To keep our economy strong.
To see people stay in work with unemployment at a record low of 3.2 percent.
To return growth to pre-Covid levels and a return to surplus three years ahead of forecast.
To have debt well below many of the countries we compare ourselves with, using the IMF measure of 24.1% in 2024, compared to Australia at over 44%, the UK at more than 98% and the Euro Area at 80%.
All of these markers of success in this pandemic that has hit everyone around the world, they have been hard earned by every Kiwi here, and every Kiwi abroad too.
But the tools we used yesterday to help us battle this health crisis, won’t stay the same.
You might remember that before Omicron arrived we talked about moving to self-isolation for returning Kiwis. On the 17th of January we were due to start that new way of operating with Kiwis travelling to and from Australia first.
With Omicron’s arrival, we pushed that change in border settings out – to give ourselves the chance to roll out boosters – a chance most other countries never had. And a chance for Kiwis to take a breath after a hard year, and prepare for the next phase.
Yesterday we reduced the time between second doses and the booster which means over 3 million New Zealanders are able to get boosted from this weekend and that, by the end of February, 3,345,173 people will be eligible to be boosted, that’s 92% of the population over 18.
With our community better protected we must then turn to the importance of reconnection. Families and friends need to reunite. Our businesses need skills to grow. Exporters need to travel to make new connections.
It’s time to move again.
And so today in 5 steps, we move forward with our plan to reconnect New Zealand to the world.
Beginning with step 1.
Today I am announcing that fully vaccinated Kiwis and other currently eligible travellers from Australia will be able to travel to New Zealand from 11:59pm Sunday 27 February, and instead of going into MIQ, will be able to self-isolate.
In step 2, just two weeks later, fully vaccinated New Zealanders and other currently eligible travellers from the rest of the world will also be able to travel into New Zealand without going through MIQ.
The two weeks between each of these steps has been requested by our public health advisors to give time for our systems to adjust for the likelihood of more cases in our community, and for our border systems to keep scaling up in the safest way possible.
At step 2 at 11:59pm on Sunday 13 March, there will also be an expanded border exception for critical workers, and skilled workers earning at least 1.5 times the median wage, who will also be eligible to enter New Zealand, along with highly skilled workers’ family members who may have been separated from their loved ones.
This means that health workers, farm managers, horticultural workers, tech sector professionals, those working for accounting services, in education and construction, will all be eligible to enter New Zealand, self-isolate for a short period and then go about their business. Adding to the more than 17,000 critical workers who have already come to New Zealand since our borders closed.
Our Working Holiday Schemes will also reopen in stages from step 2.
Step 3 begins from 11:59pm Tuesday 12 April. Here we further extend our border extension to include a large international student cohort of up to 5,000 students for entry ahead of semester 2 and temporary visa holders who still meet relevant visa requirements.
Step 4 sees the biggest expansion yet, and includes our Australian cousins and all other visitors and business travellers who can normally enter New Zealand without a visa. This stage is likely to begin when we have much larger case numbers than we have now. For planning, we anticipate this stage will begin no later than July. I want to place strong emphasis on this being the latest we expect this to begin. There is a high likelihood of this date coming forward as we progress through the next stage of the pandemic.
From July those on the new Accredited Employer Work Visa will open including for workers offshore. At this point, the critical worker border exception will be removed. The new work visa will be mainly available to workers earning over the median wage as part of the Immigration Rebalance changes. The Minister of Immigration will have more to say about this and other immigration rebalance measures soon.
And finally, step 5 begins in October and includes all other visitors and students who require a visa to enter New Zealand, with normal visa processing resuming.
Two important questions I know travellers and Kiwis will have. The first is isolation requirements.
While we will no longer require people to enter managed isolation, at this stage travellers will be asked to follow broadly the same requirements we have in New Zealand for close contacts at the time of their travel. That’s because, as travellers, it is highly likely that they’ll come in contact with the highly transmissible Omicron variant on their journey, a fact you can see in our current numbers at the border, even with pre departure testing in place.
That means currently, returning New Zealanders will need to self-isolate for 10 days. But as the isolation period drops for close contacts here in New Zealand, as it does in phase two of our Omicron response, so too will returnees only need to isolate for 7 days.
And so our system for travellers and contacts will be broadly aligned.
When it comes to testing, all arrivals will be given three rapid antigen tests upon arrival at the airport, to take home. One for use on day 0/1, and one for use on day 5/6, with one extra for backup. That gives us the best chance of identifying cases that have come across the border.
If a positive result is returned at any point, returnees will be asked to get a follow up PCR test at a community testing station. That will help us to monitor any possible variants that may emerge. It will also help us assess when it’s safe to lift self-isolation requirements.
I know while many will celebrate today’s reopening, others will feel anxious about the resumption of people across our border. But here are the safeguards, we will be as boosted as possible at the end of February, the phasing reduces the risk of a surge in cases, and travellers will be testing and isolating, with MIQ remaining for the unvaccinated. This means we will know quickly if a traveller has the virus including any new variants.
And on that point I want to note that we will be continually monitoring the need for and the value of self-isolation. The strong advice from our public health officials is that we still need it to manage our way through Omicron, but there will be a time in the not too distant future when that will not be the case. For now though we must continue to heed the public health advice that has served us so well.
Overall, opening back up in this managed way balances inflows of travellers so people can reunite and fill our workforce shortages, while also ensuring our healthcare system can manage an increase in cases. After all, our strategy with Omicron is to slow the spread, and our borders are part of that.
As for MIQ, it will continue to be used for high-risk travellers such as those who are unvaccinated.
That means the Defence Force will begin the process of withdrawing from MIQ, with some hotels returning to traditional use to support the return of our tourists. A core quarantine capacity will be maintained that can be scaled up as required, which will form the basis of a future National Quarantine Service. More on this in the future.
But for now, I do want to pause and say thank you to a very special group of people. Our MIQ workers. For almost two years you have welcomed home over 200,000 Kiwis and critical workers, and 3,600 people from within our community who have had Covid-19. That’s more than the population of Napier, Masterton, Invercargill, Whanganui, Wanaka and Otaki put together.
You have done it with care, professionalism and at considerable risk to yourselves. You worked at the frontline of Covid when there was no way to protect yourself other than rigorous infection controls – some of which meant you gave up your normal lives to protect others. I can’t imagine the burden that presented.
No story for me sums up what you have done better, than that shared with me by a Kiwi who came home after spending the first wave of Covid overseas. As she stepped on New Zealand soil, a member of the Defence Force gave the newest arrivals a briefing and concluded with: “Welcome home, you are all safe now.” It was enough to make that returning Kiwi break down and cry.
Thank you. You made all of us safe at a time when we needed you most. And we owe you a debt of gratitude.
But for now, it’s time to keep moving.
To continue with our plan that has seen us through each stage of Covid, and beyond.
Reconnecting New Zealand is of course more than the family and friends who will be reunited. It is also a critical element in our plan for a high wage, low carbon economy. The New Zealand economy has shown remarkable resilience through Covid-19, and I am determined that we will build on this base to deliver prosperity and security to all New Zealanders.
Our exporters have worked hard during the pandemic, achieving some incredible results and returns. I am proud of the contribution that we made to maintaining international air connectivity that has kept planes flying in and out of New Zealand. I am equally proud that we have secured a free trade agreement with the UK at a crucial time in our Covid recovery. And as we scale up the movement of our people, the physical support of our exporters will only grow.
I see this as a key part of my role, and that’s why I am confirming today that I will lead trade delegations and trade-supporting visits into four key markets this year – Australia, Asia, the United States and Europe.
New Zealand is in demand. Our exports are at record highs, people want to live and work here, international students want to study here, our friends and whānau want to return.
Today’s reconnecting plan will help grow an already strong export base, bring in new skills, address the shortages standing in the way of growth, and build new connections with the world.
It’s part of moving forward. But that doesn’t mean a return to life before Covid when we can be better than that.
Covid laid bare our unsustainable reliance on temporary migrant labour. Immigration will continue to be a part of our economic story, but we have the opportunity now to build resilience into our workforces while also attracting the skills and talent we need.
We have a chance to do things differently.
I hear much talk of a return to Business As Usual. But we are better than Business As Usual.
And in the same way we cut our own path in our Covid response, saving lives and our economy, we must now carve our own recovery. On our terms. A recovery that began with $23 billion invested in our Covid economic support schemes.
A recovery where our focus is on creating higher wage jobs through lifting our productivity, growing our skills and investing in our innovation. It is a future where the environmental challenge of climate change is matched by the economic opportunities of low emissions technology and regenerative agriculture.
And that’s a job we have already started.
Underpinning our approach is a record investment in infrastructure. We will continue to push forward having already secured record numbers of building consents and the largest house building programme in modern times.
Having already set out a plan to future proof Auckland transport links, including an additional Waitematā Harbour crossing, CBD to airport light rail and a linked-up rapid transport network.
We have also started the work on rebuilding our hospitals, and our schools, and securing our renewable energy supply.
And we’ve already made a dent in upskilling New Zealanders for jobs of the future, with 171,000 people taking up free trades training, including 81,000 apprenticeships, and Industry Training Plans that make that crucial connection between training our workers of the future, for the jobs of the future.
In fact, when we look back in 20 years’ time at this period in our country’s history, I don’t want people to just see Covid. I want them to see an economy and country that was fundamentally repositioned to become more sustainable and resilient and taking on the challenges of poverty, inequality, climate change and mental health, problems the world is grappling with.
These are challenges I know we can tackle head on – because we already are.
But as I conclude today, I want to acknowledge that we are in a new phase in our Covid response. Covid as an illness hasn’t touched many of us to date. But with the transmissibility of Omicron we know we will experience the virus more directly. But the difference here is that we have all the tools possible now to prepare.
We are vaccinated, increasingly boosted, and continue to prepare ourselves at home and work with a plan.
And so now it is time, to move forward together, safely.