Coronavirus and travel: Why the trans-Tasman bubble won't happen until 2021

Travelling quarantine-free to New Zealand is highly unlikely to happen this year. That's a brutal blow for families hoping for a Christmas reunion.

Covid-19 is surging in Victoria to the point the state has declared a disaster, with more than 6300 active cases.

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern has walked a fine line of optimism and caution with Tasman travel in recent months. But caution has now given way to doubt, with Ardern this morning saying a bubble is "some time away" and calling the latest developments in Australia a "major setback."

While cases skyrocket in Victoria, other states are facing a potential crisis. New South Wales had 89 new cases last week, with eight infections coming from an unknown source. Queensland has also recorded a new case of community transmission.

That leaves the entire east coast of Australia with too much risk to consider quarantine-free travel.

Even South Australia, which has had a strong record of firm infection control, reported cases this week - one of whom was infectious when they went to school.

Ardern says a travel bubble won't be considered until Australia has 28 continual days with no community transmission. That is highly unlikely this year. Just consider it's now five months since the initial outbreak in March, and since then, there's been little sign Australia could sustain that goal.

It's also worth noting the pandemic is still surging around the world, with more than 290,000 cases reported yesterday. New Zealand closed its border when there were only 230,000 cases worldwide.

So, with a raging virus, it's getting even harder to keep the virus at bay - meaning more incursions in Australia, and New Zealand, are a distinct possibility. That would cause even more delays, pushing the prospect of Tasman travel well into next year.

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Certain politicians in New Zealand have long said Australia could open "state by state" for flights across the Tasman, but they fail to build into their argument that interstate travel has been going on for months within Australia. And many of the current flare-ups are because domestic travel has been allowed.

Say, for example, New Zealand had opened with South Australia - which reported many weeks without community transmission. However, their state currently has cases linked to Victoria because interstate travel resumed. So the notion of New Zealand dealing with singular states is farcical when Australia has demonstrated its priority is opening up state borders.

So, it's looking probable that New Zealand will only deal with Australia as a whole. And even then, both governments do not have the same strategies. Australia aims to minimise cases; New Zealand aims to eliminate. It's hard to see how our "low risk" and New Zealand's "zero-tolerance" strategies can work together. There is an increasing argument for both countries to develop a shared approach with a common goal.

It's now clear that a Pacific travel bubble is a priority for New Zealand, with the realm countries of Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau first to open. (Tokelau is a little tricky, because the current way to get there is via ship from Samoa, and after the recent measles outbreak, Samoa is taking a very cautious approach to Covid-19).

Expect travel with the Cook Islands and Niue to resume this year, as long as there isn't a Covid-19 scare on New Zealand's shores.

Both countries will only have flights from New Zealand, so there's no risk they could interact with Australian or United States travellers.

The plan could be announced before the election, so the New Zealand government can ride a wave of positivity that comes with the prospect of international travel. But don't expect flights to take off before polling day.

New Zealand is entering an election period, where even small mistakes can be amplified on the campaign. Ardern has demonstrated a cautious approach to Covid-19 all along, and expect her to double down on that for the next six weeks.

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