Wellington has paused the release of new quarantine spots due to the risk posed by the Omicron variant.
In a further blow to New Zealanders stranded abroad, officials announced on Tuesday night that the government was suspending the allocation of new places in managed isolation (MIQ) facilities until further notice. This move effectively closes off the only way for overseas citizens and eligible visa holders to return to the country.
On Wednesday, New Zealand’s Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the freeze was a “temporary” measure to take the strain off MIQ as it was under “extreme pressure from New Zealanders returning with Omicron.” Cases involving the new variant have increased tenfold in quarantine since December, and authorities will be using this time to boost the vaccination rate nationwide. As of Tuesday night, 80 percent of the country’s total population has had at least one dose, while 78 percent has received two doses. “Our focus will be on getting booster rates up and immunizing as many five- to 11-year-olds as possible before Omicron takes hold in the community,” Hipkins explained.
Demand for New Zealand’s MIQ spots has far outstripped supply throughout the pandemic. In a previous release this month, 16,000 people were competing for just 1,250 available rooms. Officials are understandably wary of the risk of Omicron spilling out into the community. New Zealand has so far suffered extremely low levels of infection; just 24 locally transmitted coronavirus cases were reported on Wednesday.
The initial stage of New Zealand’s phased border reopening, which would have allowed quarantine-free travel from Australia, has already been postponed to the end of February. But with Omicron still raging across the Tasman Sea, Wellington is delaying those plans even further. No new reopening date has yet been given.