New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday that the cabinet has agreed in principle to allow travel with Australia without quarantine in the first quarter of 2021.
Ardern said this was subject to decisions by Australian governments, and more preparations were still needed to finalise the “travel bubble”, adding that intends to name a date in the New Year once remaining details are determined.
That would mean people travelling from Australia to New Zealand would no longer need to go into quarantine for two weeks upon arrival.
For its part, Australia is already letting New Zealanders skip quarantine.
“It is our intention to name a date ... in the New Year once remaining details are locked down,” Ardern said at a news conference in the capital city Wellington.
The announcement comes as some relief to families separated by the virus and to tourism operators, many of whom rely on visitors from Australia.
New Zealand’s has virtually eliminated COVID-19 within its borders by enforcing a tough lockdown and keeping its borders shut to all foreigners for most part of the year.
Ardern said more work was needed to ensure safe travels and New Zealand would move cautiously to finalise arrangements like managing airline crew, segregating travellers and others.
“Of course we want to progress on these issues including quarantine-free travel but we haven’t taken risks before as that means New Zealanders won’t be able to keep their freedom and I certainly don’t want to take those risks right now,” Ardern said.
A trans-Tasman travel bubble has been under discussions for months and many Australian regions have allowed New Zealanders to travel without quarantine requirements since October, but New Zealand had not reciprocated this move.
Ardern says there are some remaining logistical issues to overcome, including how it would deal with a large influx of returning travellers in the case of another significant outbreak in Australia.
Australia also closed its international borders early in the pandemic and now, apart from New Zealanders, only allows returning Australian citizens to fly into the country.
“This is a sign that New Zealand and Australia aren’t just working together but that families can be back together in both directions, friends can be back together in both directions and flights can be full in both directions,” Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters.
Hunt said the bubble was “good for the economy, good for our airlines and good for both countries” and the first step on a return to international normality.
Apart from travelling to New Zealand or other isolated travel bubble destinations, Australians have got a long way to go before they can use their passport again, according to Professor Rico Merkert, Deputy Director, Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies At Sydney University.
“Given that there won’t be a vaccine rollout to all countries by then and that not even the US will be fully vaccinated by that time, I believe that the travel ban will be further extended to mid-June 2021,” he told HuffPost Australia.
Last week, New Zealand and the Cook Islands agreed to open a quarantine-free travel bubble by March next year, which was its first reciprocal travel bubble.
About 80,000 New Zealanders identify as Cook Islanders, according to New Zealand figures, several times the Cook Islands population itself. The Cook Islands is an independent country but its citizens automatically get New Zealand citizenship.
Professor Merkert said it’s not far-fetched to consider Australian. travel bubbles with other COVID-safe countries.
“Perhaps even a bubble with Fiji could happen by March 2021,” he said.
“But the other two bubbles that were under consideration namely with Japan and Singapore will most likely not happen before June 2021.
“The issue with the latter two bubbles is that once international hubs get involved, travellers will come from all parts of the world and will mingle with the local populations of the two bubbles. This then creates a logistical nightmare in terms of contact tracing and ensuring that what is created is a fenced off or isolated bubble between two COVID-19 safe populations.”
Reflecting on 2020 in her final post-cabinet press conference for the year, Ardern said it was a “a year no one would have imagined”.
She said New Zealanders desperately want a break, adding that recent progress made on a COVID-19 vaccine was nothing less than remarkable. She said for 2021 everyone is trying to be as optimistic as possible.
When asked to describe 2020 in two words, she gave one: “horrendous”.
With files from Reuters and The Associated Press
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