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Hello Perth and Brisbane: The PM's plan for trans-Tasman travel


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins give an update on the current Covid-19 community case and when vaccines are expected, during a post-Cabinet press conference on Tuesday afternoon.

ANALYSIS: The dream of Australian-wide travel bubble appears to have come to an end. But Kiwis could still be headed for Perth or Brisbane.

When Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave a vaccine update on Tuesday, she was careful to dampen down travel expectations.

Cottesloe Beach, Perth

Benny Marty/Shutterstock

Cottesloe Beach, Perth

Essentially, the world will be off-limits this year – except for potential Pacific and Australia travel bubbles.

Ardern’s language on Tasman travel also shifted, again. Australia had been pushing for an all-of-country approach to a bubble, but Ardern unofficially popped that saying it was looking “increasingly difficult”. In other words: it isn’t happening any time soon.

* The trans-Tasman bubble is dead for now: here is what needs to happen instead
* Quarantine-free travel bubble between New Zealand and the Cook Islands is on the way
* Opening the border: the big questions ahead for Jacinda Ardern

Ardern appeared to lay some blame on New South Wales, which has had a series of community cases pop up in recent months. It has a strategy of containing flare-ups in a less aggressive way, which tends to mean they linger a little longer. The most recent series of cases, which appeared in the northern beaches, was controlled with a localised lockdown.

Ardern praised those states with a similar zero-tolerance approach to New Zealand, before saying “New South Wales has tended to take a different approach. New South Wales is also a state where we do have, in the past, certainly, a high number of passengers – both inward and outward flows.” Translation: I don’t have too much faith in Sydney, and it’s a busy air route, so we’re looking elsewhere.

A view of the Perth Skyline.


A view of the Perth Skyline.

Ardern wants to deal with states that are taking a conservative approach. “And there are states that are demonstrating a very similar approach to Covid-19 that New Zealand is, and I would say Queensland is one; Western Australia, obviously, very stringent as well.”

Western Australia is a particular success story. It has gone more than 250 days without community transmission and is the best-performing state in Australia – outstripping New Zealand’s run of being Covid-19 free by some margin. It also has a requirement of no community cases for 28 days before opening interstate travel, something Ardern favours.

But the big win for New Zealand would be Queensland – it has twice the population of Western Australia – and has likewise proved it’s not afraid of using aggressive measures to get cases under control.

There is one big unknown. What happens when a bubble is underway and cases pop up in the community? Given we’d be dealing with conservative states, which have zero tolerance for Covid-19, would air links immediately be suspended?

Ardern wasn’t impressed with Australia’s immediate suspension of the one-way bubble due to a single case in Northland this week. “We need to have some confidence if we’re in a trans-Tasman travel arrangement, that we won’t see decisions that impact people when it may not be necessary.” So, Ardern will need to iron that one out, because loads of crying passengers at the airport after last-minute cancelled flights won’t make great headlines.

Ardern has another headache of a similar nature: the Cook Islands. It has announced no passengers will be allowed on today’s Auckland to Rarotonga flight following the Northland Covid-19 scare, which points to potential issues. The Cook Islands is likely to be New Zealand’s first travel bubble, but Ardern will be concerned about the country closing the border every time cases pop up. If that was done while a travel bubble was underway, hundreds – if not thousands – of Kiwis could have plans disrupted.

While Ardern says an Australia-wide bubble is “increasingly difficult”, it’s not impossible. Sydney has gone more than a week without Covid-19 cases, and Victoria is around 20 days. If the country went 28 days without any new cases, that would breathe new life into the prospect. But, I can’t see Australia maintaining that status – it hasn’t in the past – and now we’re dealing with more virulent strains.

Ardern will be holding out hope that studies reveal Covid-19 vaccines stop transmission – which would make border management easier. You could then see a scheme where vaccinated Australians could travel to New Zealand freely, as an early test to see if the scheme could be extended to other countries. Until then, Ardern continues to have a challenge opening bubbles – and those “end of March” goals for Rarotonga and Australia (now in a state form) are inching closer.