New Zealand Extends Mandatory COVID-19 Isolation as Rest of the World Moves On

New Zealand Extends Mandatory COVID-19 Isolation as Rest of the World Moves On
A generic image of a person using a SARS CoV-2 Rapid Antigen Test in Canberra, Australia, on Nov. 2, 2021. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)
Rebecca Zhu

The New Zealand government has decided to keep its current COVID-19 restrictions for mandatory seven-day isolation and mask-wearing in health settings for at least another two months.

Prime Minister Chris Hipkins said that while the country will eventually reach a point of removing all COVID-19 restrictions, isolation rules currently helped to relieve pressure on the health system.

“We are heading towards a point where COVID-19 will become normal,“ he said at a press conference on April 11. ”I would expect, certainly at the latest, by the end of the winter, we’ll be into that zone.”

The Cabinet had asked for further progress in looking at allowing people who are not symptomatic or are mild cases to return earlier than the seven days, Minister for Health Ayesha Verrall said.

“Isolation remains effective in managing spread and keeping case numbers down, and it also helps reduce pressure on our hospital services,” she said.

“But we need to make sure our settings are right and look at examples of what is working around the world. A test to return to work rule for lower risk or mild or asymptomatic cases could help reduce the strain on some workforces this winter.

“Cabinet will consider advice on this within the next two months.”

Modelling by COVID-19 Modelling Aotearoa (New Zealand) suggested that an end of mandatory isolation would cause a 13 to 25 percent increase in hospital admissions and deaths in the subsequent six months.

Infections would then settle after four to six months at a level “only slightly higher” than if mandatory isolation was maintained.

“This modelling assumes that the behavioural change in response to any policy update occurs immediately. If, instead, the behavioural change occurs more gradually, this would reduce the size of the initial peak and lead to a more gradual transition onto the same long-term trends,” it said.
“The model results suggest that, beyond the four to six months following a policy change, long-term outcomes are relatively insensitive to the timing of any decision to end mandatory isolation.”

New Zealand Is a ‘Kind of Hermit Kingdom’

The ACT party was critical of the decision, describing New Zealand as a “global oddity” and “a kind of Hermit Kingdom redux.”

“Not only is the isolation requirement draconian and out of touch, but it is also ineffective. Nobody knows the true compliance rate, least of all the Government,” ACT leader David Seymour said.

“In the 14 months since last February, the rest of the world has moved on. In the UK, isolation has been voluntary since last September. Australia’s National Cabinet ended mandatory isolation requirements last October.”

National MP Chris Bishop called the decision “overly cautious” and said the country should move on to treat COVID-19 precisely like the flu.

“Most New Zealanders have moved on ... people have moved to a model of self-care, and that’s the right way to go,” he said, reported RNZ.

The Green Party said the government made the right decision.

“Self-isolating for seven days when we have COVID is a clear and simple step we can all take to keep others safe—and the government is right to keep the requirement in place,” said Teanau Tuiono, Green Party spokesperson for COVID-19 response.

Restrictions in Other Countries

Business New Zealand Chief Executive Kirk Hope said he understands the government’s cautious approach as the country heads to winter but noted that many other countries had dropped their restrictions.

“Our self-isolation requirements are longer and are still mandatory,” he said.

“In other countries, there is guidance around self-isolation, but it’s essentially no longer mandatory. We should certainly look at those examples.”

Australia and the UK have removed mandatory isolation periods at the national level.

In the United States, isolation rules are determined at the state level. For example, California has a five-day mandatory isolation requirement for people who test positive for COVID-19.

While most European nations have scrapped COVID restrictions, but Italy continues to have some of the strictest quarantine requirements in the region, with a five-day self-isolation requirement.