July 6, 2020 / 9:07 PM / a month ago

New Zealand to limit returning citizens as quarantine facilities fill up

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand said on Tuesday its national airline will not take new bookings for three weeks as the country looks to limit the number of citizens returning home to reduce the burden on overflowing quarantine facilities.

FILE PHOTO: An Air New Zealand Airbus A320-200 plane takes off from Kingsford Smith International Airport in Sydney, Australia, February 22, 2018. REUTERS/Daniel Munoz

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsens globally, thousands of New Zealanders are returning to South Pacific nation, which is among a handful of countries to have contained the coronavirus, re-opened its economy and restored pre-pandemic normalcy.

Bookings on Air New Zealand flights will be managed to ensure the government can safely place citizens into managed isolation facilities, Housing Minister Megan Woods said in a statement.

“We are seeing rapid growth in the numbers of New Zealanders coming home as the COVID-19 pandemic worsens,” Woods said.

“The last thing we need are hastily set up facilities to meet demand.”

The government is also talking to other airlines about managing flows, she said.

New Zealand’s borders are still shut to foreigners, and citizens and permanent residents have to undergo 14 days of mandatory quarantine.

The country has nearly 6,000 people in 28 managed isolation facilities and was planning to scale up more spaces to manage demand in coming weeks.

Air New Zealand said it was pausing new bookings for the next three weeks, and would align daily arrivals with the capacity available at isolation facilities.

The airline’s domestic services and flights from New Zealand to international destinations would not be affected by the restrictions, the airline said.

New Zealand has 22 active cases of COVID-19, all from returning New Zealanders, with no known community transmission. It has recorded 22 deaths from 1,186 cases during the pandemic.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern declared in early June that New Zealand had eliminated coronavirus but soon after, two women were allowed to leave quarantine early on compassionate grounds and later tested positive for the virus.

Ardern quickly called in the military to manage the border facilities. Under pressure for the border blunders, the health minister resigned last week.

Additonal reporting by Rashmi Ashok in Bengaluru; Editing by Lincoln Feast.

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