New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins announced on Tuesday that a seven-day mandatory coronavirus quarantine period will be kept in place through the end of 2023 and possibly beyond.
Hipkins said his Cabinet performed a “difficult balancing act” and had to “weigh a number of things quite carefully” before deciding to keep the quarantine policy for people who test positive for Wuhan coronavirus infection.
“The isolation period serves not just to relieve pressure on the health system and result in fewer people being infected, but actually there is a labor market incentive for this as well,” he said.
Hipkins said a somewhat more relaxed system that could allow people to return to work more quickly after testing negative would be evaluated over the summer, and the quarantine policy might be abandoned in 2024, although he would not firmly commit to a timetable.
“We are heading towards a point where [Wuhan coronavirus] will become normal. I would expect certainly at the latest by the end of the winter we’ll be into that zone,” he said.
“We know isolation for [Wuhan coronavirus] cases is the best way to break the chain of transmission to make sure people aren’t passing on the virus and getting other people sick,” Health Minister Ayesha Verrall said after the Cabinet meeting.
“Isolation remains effective in managing spread and keeping case numbers down, and it also helps reduce pressure on our hospital services,” Verrall said.
New Zealand health officials largely favored keeping the quarantine policy in place, even though most of the rest of the world has moved on from the coronavirus pandemic, because they felt maintaining the quarantine requirement would inspire citizens to take possible coronavirus infections more seriously and because they feared the winter cold season could bring a surge of cases.
Hipkins said last year’s fall wave of illness among teachers, which caused “some schools not able then to offer the full range of classes, kids being rostered home and parents having to stay at home to look after them,” factored into the decision to retain quarantine policies.
Nationwide, New Zealand currently averages 1,729 coronavirus cases per day on a gradual downward trend. Eight fatalities were attributed to coronavirus last week.
New Zealand is one of the last countries in the world that mandates quarantines for people who test positive for Wuhan coronavirus. Australia shortened its quarantine period to five days last fall and then lifted quarantine requirements entirely. Italy still has a five-day quarantine policy. South Korea requires seven days, as New Zealand does but is reportedly planning to cut back to five days soon. Beyond that, a few states in countries like the United States and Germany have quarantine rules, with California notably requiring five days.
Opposition politicians criticized Hipkins for keeping harsh restrictions in place, noting that even authoritarian governments like Singapore have “moved on” from the pandemic.
David Seymour, leader of the ACT party, called it “a kind of Hermit Kingdom redux, 2023 edition, where Labor keeps treating adults like kids, and putting costs on the economy like money is no object.” The “Hermit Kingdom” is generally taken as a reference to North Korea.
Deputy Prime Minister Carmel Sepuloni responded that New Zealand “had a much lower loss of life during the whole pandemic” than most countries and remains “cautious” in the home stretch.
“That doesn’t mean that we want the measures to stay in place forever, we certainly all want to see them go. But right at the beginning of winter is not the time that we see it as the time to ease up on restrictions,” she said.
Sepuloni said she feared “some parents that feel pressure to go back to work earlier, even if their kids are still sick” without the quarantine period in place, which could result in “more children at school that are unwell with Covid.”