EXPLAINER

New Zealand Trans-Tasman travel bubble and how it will work

There will be green and red flights into New Zealand. Picture: Shutterstock
There will be green and red flights into New Zealand. Picture: Shutterstock

In less than a fortnight, Australians and Kiwis will be able to fly back and forth across the Tasman without quarantine.

The trans-Tasman "travel bubble" begins at 11.59pm on Sunday, April 18. From the first moment of the Monday, it's pack-your-bags time.

But it's not quite as simple as it sounds. There are things to think about before clicking the "purchase" button on the airline website.

'Flyer beware'

The coronavirus has not gone (they will tell you that in Brisbane after last week's cases). But New Zealand and Australia have both found ways of attacking outbreaks early and furiously to halt them in their tracks. The expertise learned over the past year has meant the two countries are skilled at containing outbreaks.

But they will surely come back. Accordingly, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: "While we absolutely wish to encourage family and friends to reunite and visitors to come and enjoy the hospitality New Zealand is ready and waiting to offer, those undertaking travel on either side of the ditch will do so you under the guidance of flyer beware.

"Once we know about a case in Australia we will have three possible responses when it comes to flights and access to our border, and we've captured these with a framework based on continue, pause, or suspend."

Those responses would be to keep travel going while containing an outbreak in a particular place or, in a worse outbreak, pausing travel between particular destinations on either side of the Tasman or, thirdly, suspending the whole bubble.

Green and red flights

New Zealand will keep Australian and non-Australian passengers apart to avoid cross-infection.

The New Zealand government says: "Quarantine-free flights are sometimes called 'green flights'. A green flight coming to New Zealand from Australia only carries passengers who have been in Australia or New Zealand in the past 14 days. These flights will also be flown by crew who have not flown on any high-risk routes for a set period of time.

"A 'red flight' carries passengers from countries outside of a quarantine-free travel arrangement, or from within a quarantine-free area with passengers that do not meet the eligibility criteria. Red flight passengers must enter managed isolation or quarantine when they arrive in New Zealand."

What are the restrictions on travel to New Zealand?

The usual visa requirements apply. In addition, the NZ government says:

  • You need to spend the 14 days before you depart in either Australia or New Zealand.
  • You have not had a positive COVID-19 test in the 14 days before you depart.
  • You are not waiting for the results of a COVID-19 test taken in the past 14 days.
  • You must complete a travel declaration when you book your flights. This declaration mainly asks you about your travel plans and contact details.
  • You must answer questions about your health at departure - you will not be able to travel if you have cold or flu symptoms.

What would happen in an outbreak?

For New Zealand, it would depend on where and how serious the Australian outbreak was, according to Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Canterbury Michael Plank and Professor of Physics at the University of Auckland Shaun Hendy. Presumably, the same would apply for the Australian government with a New Zealand outbreak.

A widespread outbreak in Australia, perhaps in several cities simultaneously (as there was for a time last year in Melbourne and Sydney) would result in a much more severe curtailment of the bubble than a limited one (like the current one in Queensland).

If a case in Australia was linked to the border in some way, say through a person who had recently returned to the country or through a border guard or staff at a quarantine hotel, contacts would be traced and no suspension of the bubble might be necessary.

But wider outbreaks might result in suspension of the bubble, according to the two New Zealand academics.

"As our modelling has shown, a new case with no clear link to the border indicates a higher risk of community transmission and undetected cases. In this scenario, travel from that state would be suspended until the risk diminishes," they wrote.

In other words, if - when - an outbreak occurs, the now well-honed method of lockdown around the outbreak would be implemented.

Trans-Tasman flights could be halted into that area of outbreak, or a wider area, or even completely.

Australians caught in an outbreak in New Zealand or Kiwis caught here might face quarantine when they returned.

Good advice might be: don't sell your house for the once-in-a lifetime holiday, enticing though New Zealand undoubtedly is.

Does the travel bubble negate the need for exit permits for countries beyond New Zealand?

To leave Australia, the Home Affairs department rules that citizens need a permit (what the government calls an "outward travel exemption").

But you won't need that permit to go to New Zealand, so it might seem as though the bubble offers a way around the rules - go to New Zealand without the permit and, then, just keep going.

But the Home Affairs department emphasises that this is not so. "If you are transiting through New Zealand to another destination you must apply for an outward travel exemption," the department says.

It is not clear what would happen if you disobeyed the rule but it would clearly present a problem when and if you returned to Australia.

Will trans-Tasman travel be unrestricted?

Yes, but.

Australian passengers will have to give contact information to the New Zealand authorities so they can be traced during the trip - hotel and home addresses plus a phone number should do. They will have to download the New Zealand tracer app, which is similar to the ones operating in Australia where visitors to places scan a code to register their presence.

They will have to wear a mask on the flight. Vaccination will not be a condition of travel.

Ms Ardern said people with flu symptoms would be barred. There would be random temperature checks on arrival.

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Where next?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in Canberra on Tuesday that travel bubbles with other countries were "regularly assessed" by Australia's chief medical officer.

But he added that no new announcements were expected soon ("in the immediate future").

"We have looked at places like Singapore and Japan and South Korea, and countries like this, but at this stage, we are not in a position to move forward on any of those," he said.

"As more of the world, and particularly our own country, is vaccinated, we can start moving to managing this virus a lot more like other viruses that we do with a more standard way.

"That is our objective, but we will let the evidence lead us on that. At this point, the evidence is not strong enough to give us a good pointer about when we will arrive at that."

The attitude seems to be: let's see how travel to New Zealand works out and at how other countries get to grips with the epidemic within their borders. Then, we'll think again. Step by step is the way, with the next step some time away.

Don't plan on seeing your auntie in London for a while (except on Skype).

This story Here's how the NZ travel bubble will work first appeared on The Canberra Times.