Opening time

Airport lounges like Queenstown’s could soon be busy again. PHOTO: MARJORIE COOK
Airport lounges like Queenstown’s could soon be busy again. PHOTO: MARJORIE COOK
The drawbridge is coming down and the portcullis is being lifted. Fortress New Zealand is about to join the world again.

After two years of isolation at the bottom of the planet — or the top if you believe some people’s alternative view of Earth — we are about to take down the rusty key from the castle walls, turn it in the lock and hope the door still opens.

The restrictive Covid-19 managed isolation and quarantine rules, which have made it such a nightmare for Kiwis wanting and needing to get home, are all but being scrapped early, in what is possibly the only silver lining to the Omicron cloud.

It is the kind of good news that is hard to believe without thinking you might have misheard or misunderstood it, or perhaps dreamt it instead.

However, it really is happening — fully vaccinated New Zealanders with a negative Covid pre-departure test will now be able to return home from Australia without having to self-isolate. This will be extended to all Kiwis across the globe from early Saturday morning.

Imagine New Zealand open to the world again, just about — our almost impenetrable border finally about to become permeable for those whose right it is to return and live here and for those with New Zealand passports to travel through as they need to.

Early last month the Government flagged changes to its clunky and controversial MIQ system which would remove the requirement for compulsory isolation in hotels and similar facilities and instead require those returning and fully vaccinated to isolate at home for a week or 10 days.

But with the Omicron wave crashing all around us, and daily new community case numbers ballooning into many thousands, there was no longer any sense in hindering free passage to returning and vaccinated Kiwis when only a handful might arrive in a Covid-positive state.

The Government will continue to require all arriving New Zealanders to take a rapid antigen test the day they arrive and again five days after arrival. Unvaccinated returnees will still have to go into the MIQ system.

The border remains closed to travellers from other countries, with temporary work and student-visa holders allowed back from mid-April, and travellers from Australia and other visa-waiver countries welcome from July.

Few could take issue with the Government’s latest move.

There is still some protection there, in terms of the unvaccinated having to enter MIQ and overseas travellers not being allowed in for several months yet, while freeing things up for those who most need to get back and to be travelling.

Tears of joy and relief will have been shed across the world at this week’s announcement.

There has been a strong sense of being trapped by the current regulations, both for those stranded overseas and frustrated beyond measure at trying to get spots in MIQ hotels and for those still in New Zealand but needing to see family overseas.

There is certainly a feeling that these changes could have come more quickly, although awareness late last year of the impending arrival of Omicron here a few months later may well have encouraged officials and epidemiologists to hold off loosening any of the rules.

Some in Queenstown certainly want things to speed up.

Queenstown Airport chief executive Glen Sowry says Australians who adhere to vaccination and testing rules do not pose any greater risk than returning Kiwis.

He and others would like to see self-isolation requirements changed in time so Australians can visit before the July school holidays and plan for skiing trips.

We welcome the changes announced this week.

The new policy is a game-changer for New Zealanders, especially those wanting to get back home.

But still there lurks the threat of more strains of Covid-19.

Nobody really wants to think about that, but it will be on the Government’s mind that, in the worse case, it may need to make changes again, to tighten up our MIQ system.