Covid-19: Air NZ's domestic vaccination policy hits the mark, experts say

Air New Zealand will require passengers who are not fully vaccinated to have a negative pre-departure test in order to fly domestically.
JOHN ANTHONY/Stuff
Air New Zealand will require passengers who are not fully vaccinated to have a negative pre-departure test in order to fly domestically.

Air New Zealand’s new vaccination policy for domestic flights strikes the right balance of being inclusive while also reducing the risk of Covid-19 spreading in-flight and to other parts of the country, experts say.

The national carrier on Tuesday said that from mid-December customers would be required to show proof of either full vaccination against Covid-19 or a negative pre-departure test before checking into a domestic flight.

The policy applies to all passengers aged 12 or older travelling on a domestic Air New Zealand flight and follows earlier moves from the airline to mandate Covid-19 vaccination for most of its staff as well as international travellers.

Duncan Cotterill health and safety expert and partner Olivia Lund says Air New Zealand is leading the way in implementing a Covid-19 negative test policy and other businesses will be watching how it is done.
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Duncan Cotterill health and safety expert and partner Olivia Lund says Air New Zealand is leading the way in implementing a Covid-19 negative test policy and other businesses will be watching how it is done.

Duncan Cotterill health and safety expert and partner Olivia Lund said it made sense for Air New Zealand to implement the policy because under the Health and Safety at Work Act it had an obligation to keep people safe.

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Its new vaccination and testing programme would achieve that, she said.

The policy was more inclusive than many other companies had been introducing, in that it allowed unvaccinated people to continue to fly, she said.

Professor Michael Plank said travelling around the country this summer comes with a risk of transporting the virus into susceptible communities
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Professor Michael Plank said travelling around the country this summer comes with a risk of transporting the virus into susceptible communities

“They are trying to balance the interests of both unvaccinated persons and vaccinated persons.”

Being a monopoly service provider in some regions might have been a driver behind that decision-making, she said.

Air New Zealand was operating in a high risk space and could probably have justified restricting travel to vaccinated travellers but by allowing a negative test component it was being more inclusive, she said.

University of Canterbury school of mathematics and statistics professor Michael Plank said the new domestic vaccination policy was in line with recent Government announcements on the use of vaccine passes.

“When you sit near someone on a plane, you have no choice but to share their airspace and so there is a risk the virus can spread,” Plank said.

There had been several cases where genome sequencing had shown that a person caught the virus on a flight, he said.

“The new policy means that people will be able to travel with confidence that those around them are either vaccinated or have recently tested negative.

University of Otago department of public health senior research fellow Lucy Telfar Barnard says infection in-flight has seldom occurred.
Ross Giblin/Stuff
University of Otago department of public health senior research fellow Lucy Telfar Barnard says infection in-flight has seldom occurred.

“Neither of these things is a 100 per cent guarantee but they will greatly reduce the health risk for people flying domestically.”

University of Otago department of public health senior research fellow Lucy Telfar Barnard said the policy would play an important role in reducing the spread of Covid-19 into other areas of New Zealand.

“Testing does not reduce the risk quite as much as vaccination but it is better than nothing,” Telfar Barnard said.

She said the risk of transmission in-flight was small, so the main value of the policy would be in helping reduce spread into Covid-free regions, and helping reduce risk to staff, more than preventing cross-infection in-flight, since that seldom occurred.

University of Otago, Wellington, professor of public health Michael Baker says both vaccination and pre-departure testing offer a reasonable degree of protection.
Ross Giblin/Stuff
University of Otago, Wellington, professor of public health Michael Baker says both vaccination and pre-departure testing offer a reasonable degree of protection.

University of Otago, Wellington, professor of public health Michael Baker said the policy would reduce transmission of Covid-19 to other parts of the country and promoted vaccination.

Pre-departure testing for those who were not vaccinated would increase protection for others on a flight because it reduced the chances of unvaccinated passengers being infected while flying, he said.

Vaccinated people could still potentially pass on the virus, particularly as vaccination protection waned, he said.

“This is where the vaccine has some limitations.”

But vaccination significantly reduced the chance of becoming infected with Covid-19 and reduced the chance of infecting others with the virus, he said.

“There is no question about that; it is just that after six months that protection tails off.

“People have to realise that this vaccine is not perfect.”

Pre-travel testing gave a high level of assurance that a passenger was not infected, he said.

Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran says the majority of fully vaccinated passengers will not mind sitting next to an unvaccinated person who has tested negative for Covid-19.
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Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran says the majority of fully vaccinated passengers will not mind sitting next to an unvaccinated person who has tested negative for Covid-19.

He said he was not sure which provided greater protection: vaccination or a pre-departure test.

“They both offer a reasonable degree of protection but not perfect protection.”

Wearing good quality masks was useful in greatly reducing the chance of infecting others and also gave the wearer greater protection, he said.

It was important that essentials of life, such as public transport, should remain available to everyone, he said.

Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran on Tuesday said allowing unvaccinated people to travel was the right thing to do.

“We appreciate that not everyone is going to be vaccinated and in many locations the only way that you are going to be able to fly is on an Air New Zealand flight,” Foran said.

“We don’t want to leave anyone behind, which is why we are giving customers the choice to either be fully vaccinated or present a negative test.”