Shutting off the South

A Covid border, similar to this one between Auckland and Northland, may be the best way to keep...
A Covid border, similar to this one between Auckland and Northland, may be the best way to keep the South safe. PHOTO: THE NEW ZEALAND HERALD
A hard border around the South Island may be the only way to keep Delta at bay in the mainland — but it could come as cold comfort to businesses if North Island visitor spending dries up.

Writing in a recent blog, a group of University of Otago experts argued the Government’s elimination strategy was not necessarily as dead in the water as it seemed.

It could be maintained at a regional level, they pointed out, like the approach taken in Australia.

While the Australian example has not always been a great one to follow — looking at you, New South Wales — elimination is still an achievable goal in several states and territories.

Tasmania has gone more than 500 days without a community case. In comparison, the South Island has not had a case for more than 300 days.

The idea would likely be popular with many in the South. There has been growing frustration, both with high alert levels despite a lack of any local cases, and travellers from the north breaking the rules and risking that status.

A protective border around the South Island could mitigate much of that risk, particularly while we wait for vaccination rates to rise.

But the exact form it would take is another matter.

There are several possible options floated by experts.

A border based on vaccination status could be key. Only allowing those who have had both jabs to cross the border could not only make transmission much less likely, but also encourage more people to get vaccinated.

Requiring a negative test before crossing the border could add another layer of protection. That would likely become much easier from a logistical perspective once the sluggish rollout of rapid antigen or saliva testing picks up pace.

Other measures could include imposing a fee to cross the border, or increased penalties for breaking the rules.

But it is not foolproof.

As the latest lockdown has dragged on, the number of people breaching border rules and travelling when they should not has increased.

The now notorious case of ‘‘the Wanaka couple’’, a pair who illegally travelled from Auckland to Wanaka and were later charged, dominated the headlines for days and sparked outrage around the motu.

In recent weeks concerns have grown about gang members possibly crossing boundaries, although little evidence has eventuated showing it is a widespread issue.

As time passes, lockdown fatigue and desperation to see loved ones on the other side of borders could see non-compliance increase even further.

As we have seen before, it only takes one undetected case to start an outbreak.

Then there are the economic impacts. We have heard over and over again how important visitors from the north, and particularly Auckland, are to tourist-reliant economies such as Queenstown, Wanaka, and Te Anau.

Any measures that would further restrict the ability for people to travel there would likely be met with outrage from many locals, who could argue the Government’s slow vaccination rollout has put them between a rock and a hard place.

Last month one quarter of respondents to a Queenstown Chamber of Commerce survey feared their business would not survive the latest outbreak.

There has been little enthusiasm from the Government for a South Island border to date.

And while some southern mayors have shown interest in the idea, nobody has been prepared to take a strong stance.

But Covid cases are stubbornly refusing to drop off. Despite restrictions, cases continue to breach Auckland’s borders.

It seems only a matter of time until a case slips through into the South, which could have an economic impact even more devastating than that already seen in this outbreak.

Making the South Island its own big bubble might be the only way to head that off at the pass.