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Court finds New Zealand COVID-19 border rules for citizens abroad unlawful

New Zealand’s government acted unlawfully in operating its COVID-19 border controls, a court ruled Wednesday, saying the system had stripped citizens of their right to return home.

In a 140-page written decision, Justice Jillian Mallon said the managed isolation and quarantine process did not allow personal circumstances to be sufficiently considered and prioritized.

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Justice Mallon found that the system itself was a critical component of the coronavirus elimination strategy.

But she said its failure to take into account people’s specific needs meant the government had acted “unlawfully, unreasonably and in breach of the Bill of Rights that states every New Zealand citizen has the right to enter New Zealand.”

The challenge to the High Court in Wellington was brought in February by the “Grounded Kiwis,” an advocacy group that had lobbied for the restrictions to ease.

It argued New Zealanders offshore had been stripped of their rights and some had become traumatized by failed attempts to return home.

Its challenge focused on the restrictions in place over the period from September 1 to December 17 last year.

Demand for places in the country’s limited isolation and quarantine hotel rooms significantly outstripped supply during that period, meaning thousands missed out on places in the lottery-based booking system.

Passport numbers were entered into “virtual lobbies,” with only a small percentage granted a room if successful.

Examples highlighted during a judicial review included a woman who was left stranded overseas, unable to return home to bury her only son when he died from a medical event.

Another was unable to be there while her son underwent cancer treatment.

The isolation and quarantine requirement was scrapped for all returning New Zealand citizens in mid-March.

Crown lawyer Aedeen Boadita-Cormican defended the system in court and said it was created as a protection that was fair to all New Zealanders at home and abroad under extreme circumstances.

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China’s Xi warns against ‘herd immunity,’ says COVID-Zero policy works best

President Xi Jinping declared COVID-Zero the most “economic and effective policy for China,” during a symbolic visit to Wuhan in which he cast the strategy as proof of the superiority of the country’s political system.

Xi said during a trip Tuesday to the central Chinese city where the virus first emerged in late 2019 that relaxing COVID-19 controls would risk too many lives in the world’s most populous country. China would rather endure some temporary impact on economic development than let the virus hurt people’s safety and health, he said, in remarks reported Wednesday by state media.

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“Our country has a large population, such strategies as ‘herd immunity’ and ‘lying flat’ would lead to consequences that are unimaginable,” Xi said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

The benchmark CSI 300 equities gauge extended losses, ending Wednesday’s session down 1.5 percent, its biggest decline in more than a month. The offshore yuan, which initially declined as much as 0.2 percent on Xi’s comments, pared losses to 6.7032 per dollar as of 4:45 p.m. local time.

The comments represent the clearest sign yet that Xi was willing to expend the political power he’s amassed over the past decade defending a policy that has required locking down large swaths of the country’s most economically important cities for weeks on end. The president characterized Covid Zero as connected to the Communist Party’s “nature and purposes.”

“We have the leadership of CCP, we have the communities as the foundation at grassroots level, we have the capability and strength to implement dynamic-clearance policy until reaching the final victory,” Xi said, using China’s preferred term for the approach.

Growth Target

The comments come in the run up to a pivotal party congress later this year, in which Xi is expected to secure a precedent-breaking third term in power. By increasingly tying COVID-Zero to his own prestige as a leader, Xi is making it riskier for critics of the policy to speak up and also raising the political stakes for himself.

China’s Covid outbreaks and an ongoing property market slump have put the government’s economic growth target of around 5.5 percent out of reach. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg predict growth of just 4.1 percent for this year.

“Xi Jinping’s comments in Wuhan suggest that China’s top leadership sees COVID as a legitimate reason to miss the economic growth objectives and that China’s overall COVID stance is unlikely to change any time soon,” said Louis Kuijs, Asia Pacific chief economist at S&P Global Ratings. “In turn, that means that new outbreaks will continue to pose serious risks to the economy and that economic sentiment will continue to be affected.”

In Wuhan, Xi said China “needs to promote the stable and healthy development of the economy as much as possible at the same time as carrying out the work of pandemic prevention.” Xi also said the country needed to be more self-reliant on developing cutting edge technologies, especially in chip industry and high-end manufacturing, saying the country must “firmly hold the lifeline of science and technology in its own hands.”

Testing Protocol

Xi’s remarks come after the country managed to quell its most serious outbreaks since the Wuhan crisis: both Shanghai and Beijing reported zero local cases on Monday, for the first time since February 19, with the financial hub in particular emerging from a bruising two-month lockdown.

The omicron outbreak has tested its playbook, but China appears to have emerged from that with a new protocol for maintaining COVID-Zero indefinitely. While an easing of travel quarantine buoyed markets on Tuesday as a sign of reopening, officials in the same document codified a standardized approach to mass testing and lockdown that local officials should follow.

China’s 1.4 billion people live in a new normal of constant testing and tracking. In the capital of Beijing, residents are required to show a green code on a mobile app that tracks their health status, and take a COVID-19 test every three days to enter any public venue, including restaurants, shops, and mass transportation. Even kids over age three must be tested to play in the park.

Xi’s comments were likely to dash hopes that China was cautiously embarking on an exit plan.

“We would rather temporarily affect a little economic development, than to risk harming people’s life safety and physical health, especially the elderly and children,” he said Tuesday.

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US FDA advisers meet to discuss design of future COVID-19 vaccines

Outside advisers to the US Food and Drug Administration are meeting on Tuesday to discuss whether to change the design of COVID-19 vaccines in order to combat future variants of the coronavirus.
The updated shots are likely to be redesigned to fight the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, experts say. The exact composition of the retooled shots and whether they also will include some of the original vaccine alongside new components will be considered at the meeting.

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Pfizer Inc, Moderna Inc and Novavax Inc are scheduled to present data at the meeting. All three companies have been testing versions of their vaccines updated to combat the BA.1 Omicron variant that was circulating and led to a massive surge in infections last winter.
Both Moderna and Pfizer with partner BioNTech have said that their respective redesigned vaccines generate a better immune response against BA.1 than their current shots that were designed for the original virus that emerged from China.

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They have said that their new vaccines also appear to work against the more recently circulating BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, even though that protection is not as strong as against BA.1.
Experts also want to know if the new shots will increase protection against severe disease and death for younger, healthier people or merely offer a few months additional safeguard against mild infection.
Scientists who have questioned the value of booster shots for young and healthy people have said a broad campaign is not needed with an updated shot either.
Others experts have championed any additional protection new vaccines may offer.

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Hong Kong steps up COVID-19 testing as details of President Xi’s visit emerge

Hong Kong’s government stepped up its COVID-19 testing program and advised against large family gatherings, days before landmark celebrations to mark 25 years of Chinese rule and a reported visit by President Xi Jinping.

Testing over the next few days will focus on high-risk districts where infections have broken out and coronavirus has been found in sewage samples, the government said in a statement. Compulsory tests have already been ramped up in these areas in a bid to stop the virus spreading.

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Hong Kong has resisted tightening social curbs in recent months despite rising cases. That’s put the city’s pandemic approach at odds with Xi’s flagship COVID-Zero policy.

The ramping up of the testing program comes before an anticipated two-day visit by Xi for the anniversary festivities.

According to the South China Morning Post, Xi will begin his trip to Hong Kong on June 30 before the 25-year celebrations on July 1. Thousands of police officers will descend on the West Kowloon high-speed rail terminus, where Xi and mainland officials are due to arrive from Shenzhen, the newspaper said. Xi won’t stay overnight in Hong Kong, according to the report.

He will attend a banquet hosted by outgoing Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam at her official residence on Thursday, according to the Post.

For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.

It will be Xi’s first visit to the city in five years, and his first outside the mainland since January 2020, as his pandemic policy has largely closed China’s borders.

The Hong Kong government said the virus has recently showed up in sewage from Wan Chai, Sha Tin and Yau Tsim Mong districts and residents have been given rapid testing kits. The government will continue to give out free tests to those aged 60 and above, adding to the 11 million kits already distributed, it said.

The city won’t conduct mass-testing like neighboring Macau, HK01 reported, citing incoming health chief Lo Chung-mau’s discussions with politicians.

The government urged people to be vigilant. They should “undergo testing frequently, continue to observe the social distancing measures, avoid going out as much as possible and taking part in crowded or unnecessary activities or gatherings,” it said.

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