New Zealanders stuck overseas and Kiwi business groups have reacted with despair to Jacinda Ardern’s border rethink.
The change-up was the biggest talking point in Parliament House on Tuesday, where politicians have returned for the last sitting week of the year.
On Monday, Ms Ardern announced the planned reopening to Australia-based New Zealanders, set for January 17, would be subject to a last-minute review in early January.
“We haven’t changed any decisions at this stage around reconnection … but I think people understand we need to review the latest details and evidence around Omicron,” she said.
The review is in contrast to previous statements from ministers, who were “very committed” to the date, saying Kiwis should make travel plans knowing they could bypass hotel quarantine for self-isolation.
“It’s looking very likely that we’ll proceed,” COVID-19 Minister Chris Hipkins insisted on Tuesday.
“But we can’t discount the possibility that Omicron could prove to be a spanner in the works.”
Indeed, the new variant may already be in New Zealand.
The health ministry said an international air crew that landed late on Monday were quarantining after being identified as close contacts of an Omicron case in Australia.
The border rethink comes amid surging vaccine rates.
As of Tuesday, 89 per cent of Kiwis aged 12 or over are fully vaccinated, and 94 per cent have had one dose.
New Zealand’s reticence to reopen contrasts with shifts from hold-out Australian states.
After hitting vaccine targets, Queensland has opened up without self-isolation requirements for fully vaccinated travellers, Tasmania is following suit on Wednesday, and Western Australia will do so from February 5.
Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope said the NZ’s government was “overly cautious”.
“They’re using an approach that has suited them well. But it’s increasingly frustrating for business, who are going to be at a competitive disadvantage to Australia,” he told AAP.
“The (border rethink) signal has created quite a lot of uncertainty for business, which had been looking forward to the door opening on the border even just a bit.”
The border review – slated for January 7 or 8 – has drawn scorn from opposition parties.
National leader Christopher Luxon – the big winner from polling released on Tuesday that indicated 20 per cent of New Zealanders rated him their preferred prime minister – said the time had come to reopen.
“The rest of the world is moving on,” he said.
“They are finding a way to move forward … it is about risk management. We have to find a way through to manage risk intelligently.”
Separated families are also aghast, given many had put off applying for quarantine places in recent weeks believing the border would be open to them from January 17.
Sarah Romans took part in a ‘Grounded Kiwis’ protest outside parliament on Tuesday, protesting NZ’s border settings.
She travelled to Melbourne to support her daughter giving birth in July under the trans-Tasman bubble – and was not able to return for four months.
“I did six gruelling lotteries,” she said of the quarantine ballot. She eventually won a place through an exemption due to her job as a psychiatrist.
“I found it gruelling and upsetting. It really challenged my core as a Kiwi.”
Dr Romans said she feared there would be no end to New Zealand’s hard border.
“It’s clear that they are worried about Omicron … but there are going to be more and more variants like this,” she said.
Health officials announced 80 community COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, with 62 people in hospital with the virus, including four in intensive care.