How the country kept shelving it’s reopening plans

The New Zealand border closure has been difficult for international students. Many have been in a constant state of stress over the lack of certainty over their return in the past two years.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel: the government recently announced that up to 5,000 international students are allowed into the country from April 12, 2022 and that normal visa processing would resume in October.

Despite this, it’s been a tumultuous time for many. We take a look at what has changed in the past few months for students.

New Zealand border: Christmas reopening foiled by Delta

In October 2021, reports said the government could relax international border rules by Christmas, including loosening quarantine requirements and vaccination mandates. However, there were no promises that students would return in December.

At that time, international travel had been on hold since July, when New Zealand suspended the trans-Tasman bubble due to an uptick in cases in New South Wales and Victoria. New Zealand’s government had no plans to reopen the bubble despite several COVID-free regions in both countries, including Wellington and the South Island.

New Zealand had been battling the Delta variant at the time and was working on stamping it out. Despite their efforts, Delta cases continued to spike.

New Zealand border restrictions

New Zealand is among the countries who pursued a zero-COVID-19 strategy. Source: Mark Mitchell/AFP

Hope for a New Zealand border opening by April 2022

In November 2021, the country’s COVID-19 response minister said there could be a possibility that “bespoke” arrangements would allow international students and Australians to travel to New Zealand before April 30, 2022. In a press conference on November 24, Chris Hipkins said fully vaccinated citizens, residents and tourists will be allowed to enter the country in three phases.

Under its phased reopening, New Zealand’s borders will first open to New Zealand citizens and residents travelling from neighbouring Australia on Jan. 16, 2022. This will be expanded to include Kiwis from the rest of the world on Feb. 13, 2022. Fully vaccinated international travellers can enter from April 30, 2022, and will have to self-isolate for seven days upon arrival.

Omicron threat on steroids

Despite the Omicron variant spreading worldwide, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that there will be no changes to border rules and timelines despite the World Health Organization labelling it as “a variant of concern”.

At the time, there were no Omicron cases in New Zealand but the developing global situation showed why a cautious approach was needed at the borders, she said. “Omicron is a reminder of the risk that still exists at our borders,” Ardern was quoted saying.

Unfortunately, the country decided to push back non-quarantine travel for New Zealanders and delay border reopening plans as a precaution and to keep Omicron at bay.

International students have no choice but to wait for the New Zealand border to open until October for normal visa processing to resume, which would mean on-campus studies won’t be possible until 2023.  Source: Marty Melville / AFP

International students to return in time for 2023

The government announced this month a new plan for the New Zealand border opening to vaccinated travellers, including international students, across five stages in 2022.

Under the five-step plan, up to 5,000 international students are allowed into the country from April 12, 2022 while from October 2022, all visa categories will reopen, including visitor and student visas. Chris Whelan, chief executive of Universities New Zealand, was quoted saying by stuff that the delayed reopening date has set New Zealand leagues behind.

“Australia, the US, UK and Canada are now all fully reopened to international students, but New Zealand won’t be until October, in time for 2023, leaving us a year or more behind those competitor countries,” explained Whelan.