With coronavirus under control, Australia and New Zealand may form a travel ‘bubble’

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, is scheduled to join Australia’s national cabinet meeting, along with Australian state premiers, on Tuesday to discuss the proposal.

“Such a meeting is without precedent and highlights . . . the mutual importance of our two countries and economies to each other,” Ardern told reporters Monday. “Both our countries’ strong record of fighting the virus has placed us in the enviable position of being able to plan the next stage in our economic rebuild and to include trans-Tasman travel and engagement in our strategy.”

Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, last week suggested that Ardern call into the meeting to discuss the arrangement. The two leaders are from opposite ends of the political spectrum and have clashed previously, but they are seeing eye-to-eye on the coronavirus recovery effort.

“If there’s any country in the world with whom we can reconnect with first, undoubtedly that’s New Zealand,” Morrison told reporters last week.

Both countries have quickly contained the virus, with a steady decline in new infections to negligible levels.

New Zealand recorded zero new cases on Monday for the first time since it went into a strict lockdown in late March. Its success is based partly on the concept of “bubbles,” where people have been required to limit contact to a small group of people, usually just their household.

Australia’s efforts to contain the virus and its disease, covid-19, were less strict, but its new daily cases have plummeted over the past month. The country recorded 18 new cases Sunday.

Both nations closed their borders to noncitizens at the end of March, while allowing Australians and New Zealanders who were resident in the other country to enter. Now there are increasing calls, especially from tourism operators, to allow travel between the two nations, forming an exclusive “bubble.”

For the system to work, both governments would have to agree on what to do if coronavirus cases started ticking up again, said University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker.

“We need to come up with a common definition of what ‘elimination’ means. That might be one of the prerequisites for opening the borders,” Baker said.

The pandemic has devastated the Australian and New Zealand tourism industries, which have become increasingly reliant on visitors from Asia, especially China.

Still, tourist numbers between Australia and New Zealand have remained significant in recent years, not least because of their proximity and the number of New Zealanders living across the Tasman Sea. Flights between Auckland and Sydney take between three and four hours, and citizens of each country are permitted to live and work indefinitely in the other.

Resuming unrestricted journeys between Australia and New Zealand could be a lifeline for travel and tourism companies, said Chris Roberts, chief executive of Tourism Industry Aotearoa, the New Zealand industry’s representative group.

“This really is the one bright spot on an otherwise gloomy outlook,” Roberts said.

Australians account for about 1.5 million, or 40 percent, of international arrivals into New Zealand each year, while a similar number, 1.4 million, of New Zealanders travel to Australia, comprising about 15 percent of total visitor numbers.

“Because both countries are on a similar path in terms of controlling the virus, it looks increasingly possible that we can form a trans-Tasman bubble, although we recognize it’s going to be a unique challenge to create a safe border,” Roberts said.

Air New Zealand has reduced its network capacity by 95 percent since the border closure, and the airline has said as many as one-third of its employees could lose their jobs.

In Australia, Qantas Airways has put 20,000 workers on leave until the end of May at least, while Virgin Australia, which was already experiencing financial difficulties, has gone into voluntary administration, similar to bankruptcy protection in the United States.

Although Ardern said any change would take time, tourism operators hope it will be in place for the start of New Zealand’s ski season in June.

Creating a trans-Tasman bubble would also allow the two countries to resume their beloved clashes on the sports field. Rugby fans particularly have their hopes pinned on the fiercely competitive three-game Bledisloe Cup — the closest thing the South Pacific has to a Super Bowl — due to begin in August.

Already, New Zealand’s rugby league team, the Warriors, have been given special dispensation to travel to Australia. They traveled on Sunday, going into two weeks of quarantine so they can play games there beginning May 28.

A key part of this week’s official discussions will be contact tracing in both countries. Australia has been looking at the COVIDSafe smartphone app, based on the TraceTogether mobile app developed in Singapore. New Zealand is considering adopting it or something similar.

The app, which Morrison says will not be mandatory, uses Bluetooth technology to keep a log of a person’s movements on an encrypted government server. This will enable health authorities to quickly and easily alert people who have been in contact with someone who has since tested positive for the coronavirus.

There are concerns about the data being stored or used in a “Big Brother”-type way, but Morrison has said that only state health authorities charged with contact tracing will be able to access it. The data will be deleted at the end of the pandemic or upon request, the Australian government said.

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