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Covid-19 restrictions have been dropped and school’s almost out for a fortnight – to the delight of mayors in New Zealand’s tourism hotspots, where there are hopes the holidays will boost coffers in the struggling tourism sector.
“Bring it on, bring it on,” said David Trewavas, the mayor of Taupō district – an area in the central North Island that is home to some of the country’s most famed skiing and hiking. “You can even have a mass gathering down here.”
He added: “Hopefully the [Ministry of] Health boys have got it all under control, which I’m sure they have.”
The removal of restrictions in New Zealand highlights the dilemma for governments trying to balance exhortations from struggling businesses to allow them more freedom, with the views of health experts, many of whom have urged more caution.
Some epidemiologists are decrying the government’s decision to ease restrictions for Auckland, and drop them for the rest of the nation, after a week of no reported community transmission in the country’s largest city.
“We can’t be sure that things have ended in Auckland,” said Nick Wilson, an associate professor at the University of Otago in Wellington. “It seems to be rushing and not taking a cautious, long-term perspective.”
It is not New Zealand’s first time embracing a return to life largely as normal. In June, the country dropped to “level 1” rules, with strict border controls remaining, after the virus appeared to have been eliminated from the community following one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, in March and April.
New Zealand had enjoyed 100 days free from community spread of Covid-19 before a cluster – the origin of which remains unknown – sprang up in Auckland, sending the city into a second lockdown. At times, that meant no one but essential workers were allowed to enter or leave the city of more than 1.5 million, putting more pressure on tourism operators who were already floundering.
“I know that the level of domestic bookings is pretty strong and we’re expecting to see a really busy October school holidays,” said Jim Boult, the mayor of Queenstown Lakes, one of the country’s most popular tourism spots.
“But the bottom line is that international tourism is gone,” he said. Only New Zealanders and their families are permitted to enter the country unless an exemption is made.
“Currently the tea leaves tell me that we won’t see the Australian market return until the second quarter next year,” Boult added, referring to a proposed trans-Tasman “bubble” that would allow travellers between New Zealand and Australia to avoid time in quarantine. “The trick for us is giving businesses the ability to keep their noses above the financial water level.”
Air New Zealand said its school holiday schedule had been increased to 90% of its pre-coronavirus levels. The airline would offer 1,000 more one-way flights during the fortnight than it had during the last school holiday break in July.
There would be more than 73,000 seats available in and out of Queenstown, a figure that “delighted” Boult.
Among those flocking to travel will be Aucklanders, whose movements were curtailed more than the rest of the country during the second lockdown, and who are still limited to gatherings of fewer than 100 people in their home city. Of the 61 active cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand, 29 of them are returning travellers, and 32 are in the Auckland community. There have been no new community cases in eight days.
Mayors who spoke to the Guardian said they had no nerves about Aucklanders packing their bags to head for their regions.
Tenby Powell, the mayor of Tauranga, said: “The next couple of weeks it’s going to be really important we welcome to the western Bay of Plenty our brothers and sisters from Auckland.”
The new, level-1 settings on much of New Zealand means masks are no longer required on public transport and there are no limits on gathering sizes. But Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister, has urged people to use the government’s contact-tracing app, stay home if they are sick and observe hygiene practices.
But Wilson, the epidemiologist, worried it would not be enough.
“We’d recommend a level 1.5 that still had things like mask use on public transport and an upper limit on event sizes,” he said. New Zealand did not have the digital technology that other countries, such as South Korea, had used to support its contact tracing, he added.
“Obviously the government’s ignored that for whatever reason, presumably putting more weight on letting businesses maximise their income and recovery,” he said. “That’s sort of understandable but probably a mistaken, short-term perspective.”
Some mayors did not agree.
“We’ve had a government who have listened to epidemiologists and public health officials who have taken a cautious approach and put us in one of the best positions in the world,” Tim Cadogan, the mayor of central Otago, told RNZ. “If they say it’s OK then I’m on board.”
After an early, strict lockdown of New Zealand in March and April, the country’s total number of cases remains fewer than 1,500, with 25 deaths.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘Bring it on’: New Zealand tourist hotspots bank on holidays to ease Covid pressures | New Zealand