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Temporary India travel ban is not racist, Jacinda Ardern tells Q+A

Jacinda Ardern has fended off criticism that her Government’s decision to temporarily close New Zealand’s borders to people travelling from India is racist.

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Jacinda Ardern says she would make the same decision on a temporary travel ban if a different country had been involved. Source: Q+A

The Prime Minister was adamant race did not play a part in this week’s halt on New Zealand citizens and residents returning from India, which will be in place from April 11 to April 28.

“I would not make a decision on that basis, ever,” she told Q+A with Jack Tame this morning.

Temporarily halting travellers from India has 'element of racism', says Indian community leader

The announcement came as health officials revealed more than 60 cases of Covid-19 had been detected in the past fortnight amongst travellers staying in managed isolation, many of them from India.

However, Ardern told the programme race was not a factor the Government considered when instituting the ban.

“I would never want anyone to interpret a decision in that way, because that is not the basis on which that was made, and if we had the same evidence coming through in other high-risk countries I would do exactly the same thing, I would treat it in an equitable way.”

“But pre-departure testing for those other countries which have been high risk we did see a drop in cases but … we’ve seen an increase coming from India. So I just want to take some time, a short time, to see if we can improve on that.”

The Prime Minister says the decision to temporarily halt travel from India is in line with her duty of care to all New Zealanders.

“The issue we have is that we put in place pre-departure testing to try and reduce down risk not only arriving at the border, but for travellers.

"What I’m concerned about is from what we’ve seen from the genome sequencing we can tell that travellers in that short period before they depart are getting sick. So I worry that they are at risk through the act of travelling.

"I feel like I have a duty of care to try and make that less risky for them, but also less risky generally.

“People will be travelling for various reasons, but in some cases they may not have had covid until the very act of trying to get to the airport in order to fly to New Zealand and I’m very mindful of the obligation we have to our citizens and permanent residents to come home, but I want them to do that safely. And so that’s why we’re taking this pause - and it is a pause, it’s not permanent – to see if we can find better ways to support their health needs and New Zealand’s.”

Q+A’s expert panel were mostly supportive of the temporary suspension.

NZME’s Business Editor Fran O’Sullivan didn’t see it as racist, saying: “The level of new variants and infections coming into New Zealand I think they have to get on top of it … and I think this gives a period to do it, so I would say it’s the right thing.”

Economist Bernard Hickey agreed the infection and death rates in India were a concern.

“It’s not a margin call, its way higher than anyone else,” he said.

However, academic and writer Emmaline Pickering-Martin worried about how the ban would affect New Zealand’s migrant communities.

“Sure the numbers are big but when we look at the early response to Covid and people coming into the country there were really big numbers elsewhere too and we didn’t stop anyone else.

"So from a migrant perspective what it that saying to the communities?”

Ardern says earlier calls by health experts to institute similar bans on travellers from the United States when its Covid-19 infection rates spiked to 180,000 cases a day, were rejected by the Government.

“Health gave that advice right at the beginning, so that was a year ago … before we had managed isolation facilities. Now we rejected that advice because a permanent ban on the ability of people to come home was wrong. Keep in mind, since that time, we’ve had a quite a bit of time for people to get back. And a lot have, over 130,000 New Zealanders.”