Covid 19 coronavirus: Pre-flight passenger tests set to expand as case numbers double

The Government is poised to extend compulsory pre-flight Covid tests for virtually all international travellers in an effort to cut the number of people landing in New Zealand with the virus, which has almost doubled recently.

And Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says it is inevitable that vaccinations against Covid 19 will become a pre-requisite for international travel, once the mass vaccinations around the globe are completed.

He also said Air New Zealand was considering further measures to reduce the risk of crew exposure to Covid during layovers in the United States.

Compulsory pre-flight testing for arrivals to New Zealand has just come into effect for arrivals from the United States and Britain where hospitals are struggling to cope with new waves and deaths are about 4000 and 1000 a day respectively.

Numbers have almost doubled in New Zealand recently – 99 people have tested positive for Covid-19 in New Zealand managed isolation in the first 17 days this year, according to the Ministry of Health figures, compared with 54 positive tests in the last 17 days of 2020.

They were all detected in managed isolation or quarantine. The most recent case of community transmission was November 18.

It is not clear how many of the new cases are of the more contagious UK variant, but the Ministry of Health will update those figures today.

The compulsory pre-flight tests were announced by Hipkins last Tuesday and took effect at 11.59 pm on Friday to give airlines time to prepare.

They must also have a post-flight Day-0 Covid test at their managed isolation and stay in their rooms until the result is known.

That post-flight Day 0 testing in New Zealand will be introduced for all arrivals to managed isolation and quarantine – to be phased in over the next three days.

Hipkins and Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield are also set to announce a fresh set of orders which will extend pre-flight testing to all other routes, except from Australia, the Pacific and the Antarctic.

They are expected to make the announcement for pre-flight tests today or tomorrow but, as was the case with the UK and US pre-flight testing, there will some lead-in time for the airlines to prepare.

The Ministry of Health said yesterday that 10 people had tested positive for Covid-19 in managed isolation in New Zealand over two days -seven of the 10 had flown through Dubai.

National and Act have been calling for pre-flight testing for months but Hipkins said it had not been practical initially.

“If we had made a mandatory pre-departure testing even four months ago, a lot of people would not have been able to comply because testing wasn’t that widely available,” he told the Herald.

“Some countries still aren’t even testing symptomatic people let along testing for the purposes of travel whereas now, testing is much more widely available and so people’s ability to comply with it is much, much better than even four months ago.”

Commenting on the future of international travel, Hipkins thought it would inevitably be linked to vaccinations.

“I think it is likely that once vaccines are broadly publicly available around the world, that it will start to become an international standard. In order to travel internationally, you’ll need to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

“That has a degree of inevitability around it,” Hipkins said.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce has said proof of vaccination would be a requirement for travel at some point in all but exceptional cases.

Hipkins said that Air New Zealand was looking at further ways to reduce the risk of its crew being exposed to Covid19 on layovers in Covid hotspots.

“They have stopped crew laying over in Los Angeles and San Francisco and are basing them out of Honolulu instead,” he said.

It was now considering some cargo flights with replacements crews that could fly to Los Angeles and back without them having to get off the plane.

“That would be ideal from our perspective because it knocks out risk altogether and for those freight-only services it means they would become almost no risk associated with them.”

Chris Hipkins dismissed as “not feasible” a call by epidemiologists Michael Baker and Nick Wilson to require passengers in global hotspots to be tested then isolated in airport hotels under supervision for five days before boarding.

Hipkins: “It would be almost impossible for us, without massive expense, to enforce a pre-departure quarantine because in order for it to have any sort of credibility, we would have to supervise it,” he said.

“That would mean setting them up outside New Zealand, staffed by New Zealanders and that would be expensive and time-consuming.”

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