New Zealand PM Ardern isolating as pregnant journalist case highlights tough COVID-19 curbs

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stayed in self-isolation on Sunday (Jan 30) as the country recorded 103 new COVID-19 infections.

Ardern, in self-isolation until Tuesday, took a coronavirus test on Sunday after being exposed to an infected person. Results were expected later on Sunday or on Monday, her office said.

New Zealand’s tough border controls were highlighted by a pregnant journalist who said she was trapped in Afghanistan.

Journalist Charlotte Bellis said in an article in the New Zealand Herald that she could not return from Afghanistan, where she had been reporting, after Ardern’s government rejected her application for an exemption to gain entry.

“When the Taliban offers you – a pregnant, unmarried woman – safe haven, you know your situation is messed up,” Bellis wrote, saying she was trapped with her Belgian partner.

Bellis had been working for Al Jazeera in Afghanistan, where her photographer partner Jim Huylebroek is also based.

But she did not realise she was pregnant until she returned to Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar.

It is illegal to be pregnant and unmarried in Qatar, so Bellis kept the pregnancy secret as she prepared to return to New Zealand.

When told she did not qualify for an exemption under New Zealand’s strict border controls and with Afghanistan the only other place she and Huylebroek had visas to live, Bellis said she called senior Taliban contacts and was told she could give birth there.

“We’re happy for you, you can come and you won’t have a problem,” Bellis said the Taliban told her in an interview with the New Zealand Herald.

“Don’t worry. Everything will be fine,” she added they said.

Bellis’ application was rejected because it was for travel outside the allowed 14 days after application, immigration and health officials told the newspaper.

They were quoted as saying the case needed further explanation and that Bellis was “invited” to reapply within the 14-day window.

Chris Bunny, head of New Zealand’s Managed Isolation and Quarantine, told the newspaper the department has not received confirmation that Bellis intended to bring her flights forward.

She said she chose travel dates outside the window due to a scarcity of flights out of Kabul and to “give us time to appeal if we were rejected”.

The quarantine agency did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment.

New Zealand’s borders have been shut to foreigners since March 2020. The government pushed back plans for a phased reopening from mid-January to the end of February out of concern about a potential Omicron outbreak, as in neighbouring Australia.

A country of 5 million people, New Zealand has had 15,910 confirmed coronavirus cases and 52 deaths.