20 Sep 2020

How far off a trans-Tasman bubble are we now?

12:08 pm on 20 September 2020

Australia's Prime Minister has again raised the idea of a trans-Tasman travel "bubble" .

No caption.

Photo: sarawinter/123RF

Scott Morrison suggested a potential bubble could work between regions that have no known outbreaks, with travellers from the South Island landing in Australia without having to be quarantined.

An extra 2000 people will be allowed to enter Australia from next Friday, which could help more Australians return home from New Zealand. Caps were made on the number of arrivals to limit the amount of people headed to quarantine facilities.

The travel bubble idea was first floated in April, when coronavirus numbers in both countries were considered low enough that the concept became a prospect to keep the twin economies chugging along, albeit at a slower pace.

But the momentum for the idea took a nosedive when the virus slipped out of Melbourne hotels and spread across Victoria. Later, 'Covid-free' New Zealand celebrations were put on ice when new cases were revealed in Auckland.

So, where exactly are we at with the bubble? And is there any prospect of it taking flight soon?

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison Photo: AFP

What's the latest?

At last Friday's meeting of the National Cabinet, Prime Minister Scott Morrison raised the idea again, but with significant caveats.

He suggested a potential travel bubble could work between regions with no known outbreaks, which could allow travellers from New Zealand to land in Australia without having to do quarantine.

"For example, the whole of the South Island, that's an area where there is no Covid," he said.

"So if we could get to a situation soon where those coming home from New Zealand are able to enter Australia without going into a 14-day quarantine… we see that as another way of enabling more and more Australians to come home."

He said about 15 percent of returning Australians had come from New Zealand.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade estimates 36,000 Australian citizens live overseas, 27,000 of whom wish to return home.

From 28 September another 2000 people will be allowed into Australia incrementally, up from the original 4000- person cap.

The cap is due to last until 24 October.

What's been said previously?

People walk along Albert Park lake in Melbourne on July 13, 2020, as five million people in Australia's second-biggest city began a new lockdown following a resurgence of coronavirus cases.

A spike in cases in Melbourne put an early dampener on the prospect of freer travel between Australian and NZ. Photo: AFP

Given the spike in Australia's cumulative coronavirus cases, Prime Ministers Scott Morrison and Jacinda Ardern have poured cold water over the idea of a full bubble opening up anytime soon.

NZ Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters first suggested the bubble idea on 16 April.

It was then discussed by Cabinet in May, when virus numbers appeared to be low on either side of the Tasman.

Border disputes between Australian states held the idea up the first time, and Victoria's outbreak shot it down the second time.

In early August, Ardern told Newshub that Australia's levels of community transmission were far too high to revive the bubble idea.

"One of the things we said as part of our criteria was that anywhere we have quarantine-free travel, they have to be free of community transmission for a period of time, 28 days," she said.

"That is going to take a long time for Australia to get back to that place."

She added that the idea may be put on the "backburner for several months".

How would the new idea work?

Few passengers are seen on departure at Sydney International Airport on April 11, 2020 in Sydney, Australia as the coronavirus pandemic forced the virtual shutdown of air travel.

Few passengers are seen on departure at Sydney International Airport as the coronavirus pandemic forced the virtual shutdown of most air travel. Photo: AFP

It's unclear at this point.

A spokesperson for Morrison told the ABC the finer details were still being worked through, and as such, the Government did not have "any further details to share publicly at this stage".

In the interim, what we can do is look at the standards a new scheme might be held to, such as what an 'outbreak' actually means. The definition in Australia is "a sudden increase in occurrences of a disease in a particular time and place".

Last month, Auckland went back into lockdown after an outbreak was discovered, and there are 67 active cases in the North Island, according to the Ministry of Health.

Using Morrison's rough outline, travellers from New Zealand's South Island would be able to fly to Australia without having to do quarantine on arrival.

But any future bubble scenario would also depend on how geographically wide an outbreak is defined, which may be at the town, city, or regional level.

What's it like to fly from NZ to Australia now?

Air New Zealand planes parked up at Auckland Airport during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Air New Zealand planes parked up at Auckland Airport during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: Supplied/ Air NZ

Expensive, and sometimes long.

Because of the cap on foreign arrivals in Australia, and the pandemic-induced air travel downturn, airfares have risen significantly.

The pandemic has also led to the demise of Australian budget carrier Tiger, while Virgin Australia has been placed into voluntary administration.

Direct flights between Australian and New Zealand cities have been harder to get onto, presenting some travellers with high fares and long stop-overs.

According to an ABC search on Google Flights, getting a seat on the next available one-way flight from Auckland to Sydney in October costs $11,400 with stopovers in Malaysia, and China before landing in Australia.

The average price of the next three available flights was $8,116, at the time of writing.

This contrasts dramatically to prices in February, when Australian carriers and Air New Zealand were locked in a battle to entice people over the Tasman, with some flights from the latter priced as low as $69.

How are Australians in NZ coping?

A health worker conducts a test at a COVID-19 coronavirus testing centre in the suburb of Northcote in Auckland on August 12, 2020.

New Zealand has less than 70 active coronavirus cases at the moment. Photo: AFP

Ben has been living in the North Island since June, and his partner and young children have been here since early March.

The Perth local, who asked the ABC only to use his first name, said his family has been staying with relatives since the Australian travel bans were introduced, and said they only anticipated it would last a month.

"It'd be nice to not be living out of a suitcase for six months," he said.

He is one of many Australians abroad currently trying to keep on top of evolving border restrictions and fluctuating flight schedules.

"It would be quite helpful if the airports actually had a bit of a register about incoming flights, so people could plan their return flights a bit better," he said.

One flight to Perth from Auckland flies via Singapore, while others route through Brisbane.

If he took the latter, it would amount to four weeks of quarantine all up, with fortnight-long quarantines in both Brisbane and Perth.

"For the young kids, it'd just be a nightmare," he said.

"It'd be 16 hours trying to stop a two-year-old from opening the hotel door."

He suggested Australia should do more to make things easier to return home.

"Why would you not have Australian representation at the airport for any flights [to Australia], where passengers get the nose and swab tests," he said.

"That tells you if you're highly transmissible and [authorities] get the results before the flight lands and later can act accordingly."

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and NZ's Prime Minister's office were contacted for comment.


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