Melbourne COVID-19 lockdown: I came here from New Zealand for a week, now I can't go home

Today we are switching Airbnbs.

My friend and I have been cooped up in a surprisingly nice apartment in downtown Melbourne for the last week, but with the lockdown and travel pause being extended we needed a new place to stay.

So we're moving two floors down, to an apartment that looks identical to the one we're in.

It's a huge new building, seemingly built to cater to well-heeled foreign students for the university across the road. But there are no foreign students right now, so it is very, very cheap.

Our two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment is coming in at below $100 a night, far less than what you would pay in many parts of New Zealand.

Who said travelling during COVID-19 was a bad idea?

The problem is the apartment isn't ready yet, so we are stuck in the shiny shared area with all our stuff for three hours. We've got our masks on and are keeping distant from everyone, but strangely enough one of the apartments is up for sale today, and socially distanced real estate viewings appear to be legal here in lockdown, so the lobby is far from empty.

We've now been in Melbourne two weeks, about a week longer than planned. The first COVID-19 cases emerged two days after we arrived, prompting a return to masked indoor dining. I put it decidedly out of my mind: I've been reporting on COVID-19 for over a year now, this holiday was supposed to be a break from that.

Besides, Australia's contact tracers seemed pretty good – at least as good as ours – hadn't they got that New South Wales breakout under control pretty rapidly? It was good that case had emerged so early in my trip, I reasoned – any later and it might actually interfere with my flight home.


So I continued to basically do what I had planned, albeit with a mask on. I ate out with friends, went to galleries, and shopped. The news got continually worse and worse. I spent the last day before lockdown buying sweatpants and a computer mouse to make working from "home" slightly better.

The holiday itself was a risk. I was in the press conference where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern explained it would be "flyer beware" and that people could end up stuck in Australia for quite a while.

I reasoned that the risk was fairly low, I could work from Australia without huge dramas, and that any bubble pause would likely just last a couple of days. So I packed my laptop and hot water bottle in case things got hairy, but otherwise felt pretty confident.

That over-confidence reversed into something approaching unreasonable despair earlier this week, as the cases piled up and the Victorian health officials started mentioning unexplained wastewater COVID-19 and a new variant that could infect people entering rooms two hours after a positive case had left.

Victoria had experienced months of lockdown in 2020, and it wasn't at all clear that 2021 was going to be any different. The apartment may have been cheap, but the prospect of being cooped up in it over a month while life went on as normal back home was not so great. I had been inside Fortress New Zealand for so long, and now could taste the bitter cold outside.

Then on Thursday, New Zealand's COVID Response Minister Chris Hipkins surprised me. As he was extending the travel bubble pause another week he gave us a way out: from next Wednesday, given we will have been in lockdown for two weeks, we will be able to provide a negative test and fly home without quarantining.

My reporter-brain immediately saw the political risk from this move – plenty of Kiwis will be reading this thinking I am utterly stupid for having left New Zealand and should have to pay for managed isolation.

That political risk does appear to exceed the actual risk, but it is still virgin territory for the government, with a real possibility that people will leave a "locked down" city and emerge in New Zealand with no restrictions after a flight.

The other side of my brain, which really would like to come home, was delighted to have an actual date I could plan around. Lockdown is far more fun when you know there's an end to it. There are strange pleasures to isolation for those who aren't forced into poverty by it – the long walks you never find time for in normal life, the cooked lunches while you keep an eye on your work Slack, the freedom from choice that comes when you have only a single way to spend your weekend.

Coming to Melbourne the one week it got COVID-19 after months of freedom was pretty bad luck. But I was able to afford the extension, work comfortably from here, and will be back in Bloomberg's number 1 COVID-19 country before long. I'm pretty lucky after all.

Henry Cooke is Stuff's chief political reporter, based in the New Zealand Parliament's press gallery in Wellington.

See also: Vaccinated allowed to travel overseas in July? Don't hold your breath

See also: Australia should adopt the UK's approach to international travel