Case drops, seatbelts on? How the trans-Tasman travel bubble is faring

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They were simpler times.

In April, Australia and New Zealand’s coronavirus numbers were once considered low enough that the prospect of a trans-Tasman travel bubble was mooted to keep the twin economies chugging along, albeit at a slower pace.

But the momentum for that 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?

What’s the latest?

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Scott Morrison answers questions about the delay in raising the arrivals cap.

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

He suggested a potential travel bubble could work between regions that had no known outbreaks, which could allow travellers from New Zealand landing 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.

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

DFAT has estimated that 36,000 Australian citizens live overseas, 27,000 of whom wish to return home.

From September 28, another 2,000 people will be allowed into Australia incrementally, up from the original 4,000-person cap.

The cap is due to last until October 24.

What has been said previously?

(Left) Winston Peters shakes hands with Jacinda Ardern after they sign a coalition agreement.
New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters (left) first suggested the bubble.(AP: Nick Perry)

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.

New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters first suggested the bubble idea on April 16.

The bubble was later officially discussed at National Cabinet in May, when virus numbers appeared to be low on either side of the Tasman.

Border disputes between Australian states held up the idea the first time, while Victoria’s outbreak shot down the idea the second time.

In early August, Ms Ardern told NZ’s AM show 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.

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

How will the new idea work?

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Previously Mr Morrison has said ‘it makes sense’ for Australia and NZ to open up together.

It’s unclear at this point.

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister 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 Australian Health Thesaurus defines it as “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 presently there is a total of 67 cases on the North Island, according NZ Health Ministry data.

Using the Prime Minister’s rough outline, travellers from New Zealand’s South Island would currently 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?

You look out over a plane wing flying over patchy clouds scattered across a blue sky with the Air New Zealand logo on the tip.
The frequency of trans-Tasman flights have plummeted since pandemic controls were introduced.(Flickr: Kristina DC Hoeppner)

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 a Google Flights search, 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 $NZ69 ($64).

How are Australians in NZ coping?

Motorists queue at a community coronavirus testing centre in New Zealand.
New Zealand has less than 70 active coronavirus cases presently.(Supplied: New Zealand Ministry of Health)

Ben, an Australian currently living in New Zealand’s North Island, has been in the country since June, while his partner and young children have been in the country 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 for a month.

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 airport’s 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 Brisbane and Perth respectively.

“For the young kids, it’d just be a nightmare,” he said.

He suggested Australia should be doing more to make things easier when returning 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 (DFAT) and New Zealand’s Prime Minister’s office were contacted for comment.

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