26 Mar 2021

Cook Islands PM confident NZers will be arriving in May

From Checkpoint, 5:07 pm on 26 March 2021

Cook Islands businesses are disappointed over travel bubble vagueness, and while PM Mark Brown is "very confident" of a May start date, he says it's a requirement for the economy's survival into next year. 

New Zealand and Cook Islands Prime Ministers Jacinda Ardern and Mark Brown met at Auckland War Memorial Museum today and jointly announced plans for a Cooks vaccination campaign and an aid package of $20 million to support Cook Islands government services, but no firm date for a two-way quarantine-free travel bubble. 

Ardern said there had been significant work done, and the countries were "working in earnest towards a May commencement" for a travel bubble. 

"The Director General of Health has also advised that beginning vaccination will add to the safe opening of quarantine-free travel," she said. 

Brown told RNZ's Checkpoint the delegation had come with the aim of firming up a date for the bubble and - despite any reticence from New Zealand officials - he was happy with progress so far and confident of opening up in May. 

"We've made a joint commitment with New Zealand that we will be looking at May", he said. "It's a requirement for our economy now to be able to survive into the next year." 

Brown said he could understand New Zealand's sentiments in terms of wanting to protect Cook Islanders - particularly in light of the recent measles epidemic in Samoa - but it was time to get back to business.  

He said without a bubble by the end of the year, private sector tourism operators - many of whom invested millions of dollars into their product - stood a real risk of losing their investments due to lack of income. 

"That's a far greater issue than just a balance sheet problem because there's a far greater structural problem with the economy that we need to address in the first step," he said.  

'We're sort of still guessing what exactly New Zealand needs'

Indeed, Cook Islands Chamber of Commerce president Fletcher Melvin said he was disappointed, and New Zealand needed to start treating the Cook Islanders like adults. 

"If they said May ... and they put a date on it, we would accept that. But this idea that it 'could be' May just means that it's probably not [going to happen then], if history is anything to go by. So that's just what we're gonna walk away with thinking." 

"They need to treat us like adults and yeah, tell us exactly what they require and let's get down to doing that."

Melvin said some hard questions needed answering about New Zealand's lack of commitment to opening up to the Cook Islands. 

"I don't think anybody could have walked away from that news conference with any firm answers, always vague and there's never really any commitment. 

"We all thought we had ticked all the boxes to this stage so - I don't know. We're sort of still guessing what exactly New Zealand needs from us. Something concrete for once so we can all try and reach those goals, whatever they are." 

He said New Zealand needed to explain exactly what needed to be done, the things New Zealand may perceive had not been covered - in equipment, training, protocols, or capacity. 

"For goodness sakes tell us what it is, exactly what it is, and then let's send some money and get this fixed so we can get back to getting our economy back on its feet. 

He said the vagueness from New Zealand was just depressing. 

"All our worst case scenarios are playing out. People are leaving the country. Companies are deciding that they can't stay open much longer. Every day we lose a million dollars in revenue." 

A one-way travel bubble between Rarotonga and New Zealand has been in place since the end of January allowing quarantine-free travel from the Cook Islands to New Zealand.

At least 300 Cook Islanders have arrived in New Zealand to look for work since the one-way travel arrangement came into effect and residents are travelling to New Zealand for medical treatments they cannot access at home.

Melvin believed New Zealand was being too paternalistic. 

"In the past I would be hesitant to criticise the New Zealand government, I mean they've done just a great job with looking after themselves, looking after New Zealand, but yes, I think they are."

The aid money was helpful, but just not enough. 

"We're talking about potentially $40 million and I believe that New Zealand has committed $20m and that's just for the functioning of government, so how does the private sector continue.

"That kind of money is not going to service all the private sector debt that's mounting." 

"I think it's very disappointing." 

More documentation needed from Cook Islands - Brown

Brown said he was "very confident" of a May start date, however. 

"As I made clear in my discussions with officials and with the Prime Minister, we are ready now. There are a few little details that we do need to iron out but as a country our health preparedness is at a state where we are ready to be open for business."

Cook Island PM, Mark Brown is in NZ

Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown Photo: supplied / Ryan Anderson

Those details included documentation of processes in the event of an outbreak in New Zealand, he said. 

"Any outbreak would occur in New Zealand first and that's where we would shut down passenger travel. That's been the case for the last year - and in particular the last three months," he said. 

"Our response plan, which we have in practice been acting on over the last three months - we have had two-way quarantine-free travel although restricted only to Cook Islanders and work permit holders ... in response to the February outbreak we acted appropriately, suspended passengers' travel, sought assurance that there was no community transmission and then we resumed again." 

"With the two-way bubble opening up for Cook Islanders and work permit holders - including doctors, members of the judiciary - we've now commenced that travel - that is now occurring now, although to a restricted population ... and I guess this is the basis of our argument why we're ready for an opening in May - we have in fact been operating.

"We're confident in the measures we have, we'd now like to extend that two-way bubble to the wider holidaying New Zealand public." 

He said the May timeline would gives everybody a bit of time to gear up.

"For accomodators, for airlines, and for customers who may be wanting to look at a holiday in the Cook Islands."

He said even a comparatively limited number of visitors would make a big difference. 

"The holidays are important, but for us any sort of commencement of visitor arrivals are going to make a great deal of difference. The numbers required from our perspective are not large, but they certainly do make a huge difference in terms of visitors coming through. 

"We're talking two or three flights a week that are full, that could be up to 600 or 700 people a week coming in. Now, In the context of New Zealand's domestic tourism that's just a fraction, but  they make a big difference to us." 


Brown said the country was ready to rollout immunisations now, and could within vaccinate the entire eligible population in two weeks. 

"We entered the Covax agreement for the supply of vaccines as part of New Zealand's supply for the vaccine so our avenue for supply of the vaccine is through New Zealand," he said. 

"We are in fact ready to roll out the vaccinations as soon as the vaccines are available to us. We've indicated our preference for the Pfizer vaccine, which is what New Zealand has, and for ourselves we'd be able to vaccinate the entire eligible population within two weeks." 

He said that was because the Pfizer vaccine was the first available one. 

New Zealand has purchased enough of the Pfizer vaccine to vaccinate the entire New Zealand population, and has purchase agreements with other suppliers as well.