Travel between Australia and New Zealand post COVID-19: Why the trans-Tasman bubble is dead

The Australian-New Zealand travel bubble is looking less likely. Kiwi travel writer Brook Sabin gives six reasons the idea may be dead.

A tsunami of rage swept over the country last week as COVID-19 quarantine bungles emerged. And now, picking over the debris of doubt left behind from the tidal wave of anger, it's looking increasingly likely the Tasman bubble won't happen in the coming months, or potentially even this year.

Here are six reasons Tasman travel is looking unlikely any time soon.

1) Public anger

Last week's series of bungles taught us that the public has zero-tolerance for slip-ups. The country is at Alert Level 1, meaning if the virus entered the community undetected, it would be given the opportunity to spread with force

The stakes are enormous: an undetected outbreak that runs for a few weeks before being picked up could lead to another lockdown, cost the country billions, and many thousands more jobs would be lost.

The brutal reality is the New Zealand government is struggling with a strict 14-day quarantine procedure where it controls almost every element of a person's life for two weeks. In this context, you can hardly see people walking straight off the plane from Australia - where community transmission of the disease is still underway.

Yes, we could test Aussie arrivals. But in the early stage of the disease, that person may test negative, before symptoms develop. It's why quarantined travellers are tested twice in their 14-day isolation period.

The two women who were granted compassionate leave, and later tested positive for the disease after driving to Wellington, had a strict management plan in place - and anger still raged.

What about an Australian who comes here, walks out of the airport, visits three cities, eight restaurants and one rugby match - only then discover they are positive? Suddenly, those two women getting lost on the motorway doesn't look that bad.

2) Australian cases

Epidemiologists are warning about a potential second wave emerging from Victoria. The Australian state is struggling with a flare-up, and new restrictions are being imposed.

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Nationwide there were 25 new cases yesterday, with 463 active across Australia.

Yes, we could only deal with states like South Australia, which has no active cases. But, there is a big problem with that strategy: South Australia has already relaxed border restrictions with some states. Therefore, it's impossible to deal with one state when its borders are porous.

Australia does not have the elimination strategy we do - with its government aiming to "minimise the number of people becoming infected or sick with COVID-19". New Zealand, on that other hand, has a zero-tolerance approach. So states in Australia may tolerate the interstate travel risk knowing one or two cases could be imported and managed. However, the New Zealand public will have no appetite for one crossing the ditch.

3) The election

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Getty

It's 89 days until the election, on September 19, and I can't see a Tasman travel bubble opening before then.

The Prime Minister knows all too well that if a case got loose, causing an outbreak before the election, an enormous amount of rage would be directed at the government. The risk of it having an impact on the election would be too high.

Adding to this is my next point...

4) Public mood

The overwhelming sense I get from a few trips around the country in the past few weeks, is that most Kiwis don't want a trans-Tasman bubble if Australia is still managing an outbreak.

Sure, tourism operators I've spoken to are desperate for it - but most do not want to take the risk. I'm certain the government will be polling on this issue, and likely getting clear feedback: Kiwis don't want it - until it's 100 per cent safe.

If anything, it seems the public mood has shifted to dealing with Pacific countries free of the virus.

5) Virus intensifying

We are one of the few countries in the world to get COVID-19 under control, with the aim of eliminating the virus. But when you're aiming for 100 per cent, there can be no room for error.

The virus is intensifying worldwide, meaning more cases will appear at our border, and with the military now controlling the operation, expect protection measures to intensify. It's hard to see where quarantine free travel fits with this in the near term.

6) Dr Ashley Bloomfield

It may be a while before we see the trans-Tasman bubble.

It may be a while before we see the trans-Tasman bubble. Photo: Tourism New Zealand

Up until last week, New Zealand's Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield's meteoric rise was so remarkable he was set to be the first person to colonise Mars. However, he fell straight back to Earth as the bungles accumulated.

It's crucial to remember Bloomfield has a record of adopting a cautious approach - just before lockdown he even recommended to the government that the border be shut to everyone, even New Zealand citizens.

It's not in his DNA to recommend going ahead with quarantine-free travel with Australia if it still has active cases. Bloomfield knows testing isn't fail-safe.

When the government meets to decide on whether to open trans-Tasman travel, Bloomfield will be required to give his recommendation.

If the government went against his advice, and a case slipped into the country, it would be a ticking political time bomb of nuclear proportion.

Brook Sabin is a New Zealand-based travel journalist with Stuff.co.nz

See also: The 11 destinations Australians should be able to visit in 2021

See also: Bali's out, Queensland's in: The new destinations on Australians' wish lists

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