Closing New Zealand’s border was one of the most significant decisions any leader of our country has made.
And likewise, another weighty set of decisions will soon be required: opening our border in a Covid-19 world, firstly in the form of a travel bubble.
It is astounding there isn’t more conversation and detail from our political leaders about their plans for travel bubbles. Politicians are very good at indulging the possibility of travel before an election, but where’s the concrete plan? “When it’s safe” is not a plan – we need detail.
Last week it was announced the Australian state of New South Wales and Northern Territory would open one-way quarantine-free travel to those travelling from New Zealand on October 16. However, Kiwis would still be required to pay for a two-week stay in isolation on return.
There is understandably little movement from the New Zealand side. New South Wales, in particular, has a steady stream of mysterious community cases in recent months, and although that has now tapered off, is yet to go 28 days without community transmission.
Does that leave us all any clearer about when, and under what circumstance, we may see a trans-Tasman travel bubble?
Here are five big problems that need to be dealt with first.
Why isn’t New Zealand’s travel bubble strategy a key election issue?
We know both major parties want to start a travel bubble when it’s safe. But what does that really mean?
Where is the concrete 10-step plan outlining what conditions need to be satisfied for a bubble to go ahead?
Here are a few of the questions that need to be addressed and debated:
Will an Australian state simply need to go 28 days without transmission for a bubble to be considered? What happens if a case in their community pops up?
Will we sign up to a common definition of a Covid-19 ‘hot spot’ as Australia is pushing for? If not, at what point is travel closed off if cases pop up?
Will a trial by run first, with testing, to help give the public confidence?
Could rapid testing be used alongside the first 10,000 arrivals as an extra safety measure?
Will our Government have a tolerance for the odd case popping through the border, and then aggressively contact trace it? Or if a single case popped up, would all travel be cancelled?
If the plan shows a travel bubble is near impossible, so be it. But let’s debate the plan, not some vague prospect of opening by Christmas.
Australia will forge ahead anyway.
The horse is bolting across the Tasman. New South Wales has already opened its border with most states, South Australia is open to some, and Queensland is moving towards interstate travel too. It’s a complex web of travel rules, that is forever changing.
The Australian Government defines a hotspot, where travel is banned, as a place with a three-day rolling average of three locally acquired cases per day. Not all states have agreed to work with this definition.
Will we accept it? If not, what would we like to see? If we don’t sort this out – so New Zealand and Australia can work in unison – the Tasman bubble could be dead on arrival.
What will happen if community cases pop up once travel has resumed?
One of the key questions around a travel bubble with Australia is what happens if a community case pops up? For example, if we have flights to Adelaide and a single mystery case popped up there, would flights to and from New Zealand be cancelled? If not, would we adopt Australia’s hotspot definition and stop travel if there were more than three cases for three days in a row? The New Zealand public may find that hard to stomach, but that’s why debate is needed now, before the election, to try and settle on a risk we’re happy with.
Travellers, airlines, insurers and the tourism industry need this certainty. We could see cases pop up once a bubble is underway, and nobody quite knows at what point travel would continue, or if tens of thousands would have travel plans disrupted by widespread cancellations.
What about Rarotonga?
A question that also needs public debate is what travel bubble should come first between the Cook Islands and Australia? Economically, there is little gain from opening a travel bubble with the Cook Islands, but it’s a safer option.
One thing’s clear: we need to trial a travel bubble with one country first, with issues discovered and solved, before we look at implementing the second.
So, should we concentrate on the Cook Islands? Or focus on a state like Western Australia that has gone more than 170 days without any recorded community transmission?
Nobody likes to talk about insurance, but it will be an enormous factor in a post-Covid-19 world. Insurers don’t like covering known risk, and that could make travel tricky.
For example, if a travel bubble was established, and all flights were cancelled because of a flare-up – would insurance cover your cancellation costs? Historically most insurers would say no, as you knew the risk when you booked.
Airlines like Emirates are getting around this by offering their own Covid-19 insurance, but travellers will need to see trans-Tasman solutions in this area to help build up consumer confidence.