The return of quarantine-free travel across the Tasman could be possible within weeks, with New Zealand committing to forming a bubble with Australia by the end of March 2021.
On Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern used her final press conference of the year to announce her cabinet has signed off on a timeline for the bubble.
Despite an absence of community cases on either side of the Tasman, Ms Ardern had resisted pressure to open NZ’s borders to Australia, saying “I’m not willing to take risks right now”.
“New Zealanders desperately need a break,” she said.
“The big focus for me right now is everyone in New Zealand to be able to experience and enjoy a free summer. We haven’t taken risks before that mean New Zealanders won’t be able to keep their freedoms, and I certainty don’t want to take those risks now.”
Ms Ardern said the timeline was conditional on Australian government support and case numbers remaining low.
Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt welcomed the announcement and said the Federal Government was “absolutely” likely to approve the two-way travel bubble with New Zealand.
He said that two-way travel would begin in coming months, and the two countries had already “committed to the principle of a two-way bubble”.
Following her last cabinet meeting of 2020, the New Zealand Prime Minister said it was her intention to name a date for the travel bubble “in the new year once remaining details are locked down”.
Mr Hunt said he wanted to see the two-way travel begin as soon as possible.
“We are ready to implement from our side as soon as New Zealand is ready,” Mr Hunt said.
“We understand it may take a few more weeks, but we are working constructively and patiently.”
Kiwis were granted entry to some Australian States from October 16, but Australians were still locked out of travelling to New Zealand.
Mr Hunt said the beginning of two-way travel signalled a return to “normality”
“This gives the chance for New Zealanders or Australians to visit New Zealand, whether it is for friends, family, weddings, funerals, births, holidays, business, without having to quarantine,” he said.
“It is first step on a return to international normality.”
Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham said the bubble represented “a glimmer of hope” in what had been a tough year for the tourism industry.
“Australia’s tourism industry wants to stand on its own two feet as soon as possible and restarting some two way quarantine-free international travel with New Zealand is a step in the right direction,” he said.
“New Zealand is a huge part of Australian tourism and getting people moving in a COVID-safe way between our countries will provide an economic lift and save thousands of jobs.”
Given New Zealand’s cabinet isn’t due to meet again until late January, it’s likely the bubble will open in February at the earliest.
NZ officials will use the coming weeks to finalise a resurgence plan in the event of a new Australian outbreak, which will strand thousands of Kiwis outside of Aotearoa.
Ms Ardern’s government is also keen to ensure airlines — which are keen to return to the skies — airports and staff are segregated, given flights to high-risk areas will be occurring concurrently.
The NZ government has come under increasing pressure to restore pre-COVID travel arrangements, with thousands of Kiwis in Australia eager to get home, and tourism operators keen for the uptick in business.
NZ’s hotel quarantine booking system is booked out until March, with about 40 per cent of the bookings taken from Australian-based Kiwis.
On the weekend, Ms Ardern’s government also agreed to start a bubble with the Cook Islands, which has not had a single case of COVID-19.
That arrangement is also scheduled in the first quarter of 2021, but Ms Ardern said one-way travel from the Cooks to New Zealand would come before any opening to Australia.
– With AAP