Australia and New Zealand have agreed a quarantine-free ‘travel bubble’ that will take effect from April 19, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said.
The neighbouring nations, which have closed borders to the rest of the world in efforts to eradicate Covid-19, will allow people to travel from one country to the other without mandatory coronavirus testing or forced quarantine.
Though most Australian states have allowed quarantine-free visits from New Zealanders for months, New Zealand has continued with enforced isolation for arrivals from its neighbour, citing concern about small COVID-19 outbreaks there.
Flights to and from some Australian states could still be suspended if there were local outbreaks, Ardern warned on Tuesday, with New Zealand itself often locking down entire cities for days in response to tiny numbers of cases.
The bubble would operate under a ‘flyer beware’ system, with no new support from the New Zealand government for people stuck in Australia by cancellations at short notice, Ardern said, meaning travellers could become stuck.
New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern (pictured speaking on Tuesday) announced the trans-Tasman travel bubble will open on April 19. The neighbouring nations, which have closed borders to the rest of the world in efforts to eradicate Covid-19, will allow people to travel from one country to the other without mandatory coronavirus testing or forced quarantine
‘Those undertaking travel on either side of the ditch will do so under the guidance of flyer beware,’ she said during the announcement. ‘People will need to plan for the possibility of travel being disrupted if there is an outbreak.’
She added that travellers must wear masks on flights and undertake New Zealand contact tracing, while the travel bubble did not apply to people transiting via Australia from other countries.
The move to allow cross-border travel without mandatory COVID-19 testing is one of the first such agreements since the pandemic prompted countries to block foreign arrivals to stop the virus spreading.
‘The Trans-Tasman travel bubble represents a start of a new chapter in our COVID response and recovery, one that people have worked so hard at,’ Ardern told reporters in the New Zealand capital Wellington.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the agreement ‘the first of many more steps to come … as we get back to a more normal position, not only over the course of this year but beyond’.
‘I very much appreciate the arrangement the New Zealand government has come to today, we welcome them back as indeed Kiwis will be welcoming Aussies,’ he said. ‘That means more planes in the air, more jobs on the ground and in the air as well for our airlines.’
The virus has effectively been eradicated in both countries, with minor outbreaks the result of leakage from quarantined returned travellers.
Australia has recorded about 29,400 virus cases and 909 deaths since the pandemic began, while New Zealand has had just over 2,100 confirmed cases and 26 deaths.
Both countries have been held up as pandemic success stories, with their cases and deaths far lower than countries in Europe and North America, many of which have seen millions of cases and tens of thousands of deaths.
Jacinda Ardern’s said Kiwis have missed their friends and family members in Australia over the past year (pictured: passengers arriving in Sydney International Airport from NZ)
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the agreement ‘the first of many more steps to come … as we get back to a more normal position, not only over the course of this year but beyond’
What if a Covid outbreak happens in New Zealand or Australia?
Despite the good news New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern warned the bubble could burst at any moment if an outbreak occurs in either country.
‘Those undertaking travel on either side of the ditch will do so you were the guidance of flyer beware,’ she warned.
‘People will need to plan for the possibility of travel being disrupted if there is an outbreak.
In the case of an outbreak a decision will be made to ‘continue, pause or suspend’ depending on the size and seriousness of the cluster.
‘If a case is found that is quite clearly linked to a border worker in a quarantine facility and is well contained, you’ll likely see travel continue,’ Ms Ardern said.
But in a drastic scenario, travellers may even be forced into isolation.
‘If, however, a case was found that was not clearly linked to the border, and a state responded by a short lockdown to identify more information, we’d likely pause flights from that state in the same way we would stop travel into and out of a region in New Zealand,’ Ms Ardern said.
However, Australia and New Zealand’s ruthless lockdown approaches in an attempt to completely eradicate the coronavirus have also been criticised, with some believing ‘zero covid’ is an unrealistic target.
About 568,000 New Zealand-born people live in Australia, according to 2018 figures, equivalent to 2.3 percent of Australia’s population and Australia’s fourth-largest migrant community.
Australians made up 1.5 million, or 40 percent, of arrivals to New Zealand in 2019, the year before the pandemic shut borders, contributing NZ$2.7 billion ($1.9 billion) to its economy, according to New Zealand figures. Arrivals were forecast to reach 80 percent of that level by early 2022, Ardern said.
Ms Ardern said the news will come as a great relief for many Kiwis who have been unable to see loved ones from across the ditch.
‘One sacrifice that has been particularly hard for many to bear over the past year has not been able to see friends and family who live in Australia,’ she said.
‘Our health response now gives us an opportunity to visit with loved ones again as we start a new chapter in our recovery.’
While Ardern acknowledged that Queensland’s recent outbreak did cause some concern for cross border travel, the cluster has now been ‘contained. The cabinet believes any residual risk can be managed,’ she said.
Air New Zealand Ltd and Qantas Airways Ltd said they would ramp up flights between Australia and New Zealand to more than 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels, reducing the airlines’ cash burn when they are almost wholly reliant on domestic markets for revenue.
‘Tourism operators can now take bookings with confidence and scale up their staffing,’ said Chris Roberts, CEO of New Zealand travel industry body Tourism Industry Aotearoa.
Air New Zealand (pictured) are already offering some flights between Auckland and Sydney as well as Melbourne from Friday, April 9, with the bubble officially coming into force on April 19
The bubble will allow the Trans-Tasman Super Rugby competition involving five teams from each country to proceed over five weeks from May 14.
The Wellington Phoenix soccer team and New Zealand Warriors rugby league side, which both participate in predominantly Australian leagues, might also be able to host home matches after more than a year of playing their matches in Australia.
The bubble offered an upbeat development for Morrison who faces criticism domestically after falling short of plans to have one-sixth of the population vaccinated by the end of March.
The government has blamed the shipping delays on export curbs by the European Union.