Trans-Tasman travel bubble to open – Expert reaction

Quarantine-free travel between Australia and New Zealand will resume in two weeks.

The government has devised a traffic light system to managing the bubble should any cases appear over the ditch. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said they are taking a “flyer beware” approach – and travellers will shoulder the risk of any Covid-19 interruptions to their travel.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the announcement. 

Professor Shaun Hendy, University of Auckland, comments:

“The opening up of a travel bubble with Australia is a significant milestone in our pandemic response. Given that Australia has also successfully managed an elimination strategy and has excellent surveillance systems in place, travellers from Australia currently pose little risk. Should an outbreak occur in one of the Australian States we would learn about it quickly and our government would have time to take steps to restrict travel from any affected region.

“Nonetheless, anyone travelling to Australia should be aware that their plans could be disrupted by outbreaks on either side of the Tasman. Both countries have had failures at MIQ facilities from time to time, and when this happens, travel restrictions may need to be brought back in depending on the circumstances. Travellers should be prepared for an extended stay or to self-isolate or quarantine on return.

“Furthermore, allowing quarantine free travel from Australia will also open up spaces in our MIQ facilities for travellers from other, higher-risk countries. I would suggest that the government take this opportunity to consider retiring some facilities, including those that have no exercise space on site or those that have proved more difficult to manage. This might still see an increase in MIQ places for Kiwis returning home from other parts of the world, while managing the overall risk at the border.

“Overall, the opening of a travel bubble with Australia is a positive and welcome step, which reflects the success that both countries have had in managing the virus.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Shaun Hendy leads Te Pūnaha Matatini’s COVID-19 modelling programme, which receives funding from MBIE’s Covid Innovation Fund and the Tertiary Education Commission.”

Lesley Gray, Senior Lecturer, Department of Primary Health Care & General Practice, University of Otago, comments:

“I know many people have loved ones on either side off the Tasman and will welcome this announcement. However as we have seen, there are always opportunities for the Covid-19 virus to appear when we increasingly ‘least expect it’.

“So now more than ever it is vital for everyone travelling to ensure they minimise risks of transmission for themselves and others (masks, hand hygiene, track movements using the Covid Tracer app in NZ, and above all else, if you being to feel unwell with any of the range of known symptoms, it is imperative that you isolate, arrange to get tested and stay isolated until you receive a negative test result.

“For residents of Aotearoa, now would be a good time to make scanning of the Covid Tracer QR codes everywhere you go a priority to ensure any outbreak can be quickly managed and when possible, do get the Covid vaccine and if you have any questions about the vaccine, speak with a trusted health professional.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Michael Plank, Te Pūnaha Matatini and University of Canterbury, comments:

“Today’s announcement of a trans-Tasman travel bubble is one of the benefits of the elimination strategy that both New Zealand and Australia have successfully pursued. This could be a blueprint for a wider safe travel zone, which other countries that have eliminated COVID-19 may eventually be able to join.

“Provided there is no significant community outbreak in Australia, there is a very low risk of New Zealand importing cases of COVID-19. If there was a community outbreak in Australia, the risk of importing it into New Zealand could rapidly escalate at pre-COVID travel volumes. This is why it will be critical to act swiftly if this does happen.

“This response to a new community case will be based on the same sort of decision making we have seen used here. A sensible rule-of-thumb would be that if a state government imposes restrictions locally, travel from that state would be paused while the lockdown is in place, and travellers required to self-isolate on return once lockdown is lifted. People should factor this in when they buy tickets and have contingency plans if they have to delay travel or self-isolate on return.

“It will be important that New Zealand and Australian authorities can efficiently share contact tracing information if needed and get in touch with people who were potentially exposed prior to travelling. To help with this, Australian visitors will be asked to install and use the NZ COVID Tracer app while they are here.

“Removing the requirement for travellers from Australia to quarantine will free up significant capacity in our MIQ facilities. If this capacity is filled with people from countries with high rates of COVID-19, it will increase the risk of border-related outbreaks occurring here. Vaccinating our MIQ workers mitigates this risk to some extent but doesn’t remove it completely. It is therefore sensible to reserve some of that MIQ capacity for relatively low-risk countries or as contingency for people needing to return from a hot-spot area.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I am partly funded by MBIE for research on mathematical modelling of COVID-19.”

Dr Andrew Chen, Research Fellow, Koi Tū – Centre for Informed Futures, University of Auckland, comments:

“Travellers arriving in New Zealand from Australia will be encouraged to use the NZ COVID Tracer app to help with contact tracing. This is unlikely to be a mandatory requirement, so we will rely on voluntary participation as we do with all people in New Zealand. Travellers going from New Zealand to Australia will find that there is a Federal-level Bluetooth-based COVIDSafe app which is voluntary, and State-level QR Code-based apps which is mandatory in some public places in most States (each State has their own app).

“It is particularly important for people travelling across borders to participate in digital contact tracing, as air travel allows people to travel and therefore potentially transport the virus large distances very quickly – combined with more transmissible variants of the virus, speed becomes more important in containing the spread of COVID-19. It is a good opportunity to remind all of us that as the volume of travellers increase, it is important that all of us turn Bluetooth Tracing on and scan QR Codes where we can to help mitigate risk. Digital contact tracing can help public health officials get more information, and act, more quickly to contain potential outbreaks.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Professor Michael Baker, Professor of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“The announced introduction of quarantine-free travel from Australia to New Zealand has some risks, which should be manageable, and there are large potential benefits from this new arrangement.

“The timing of this change is appropriate. New Zealand and Australia have both fully embraced the Covid-19 elimination approach, despite some hesitancy from the Scott Morrison Government, and both countries are sustaining success with this strategy. In addition, we now have effective vaccines which have been used to immunise border workers which provides an additional layer of protection.

“The border controls announced today for travellers to NZ includes a focus on pre-departure activities in the preceding 14-days, illness checks, mask use, uptake of the NZ Covid Tracer app, and ensuring air crew are low risk. All of these systematic measures are useful for managing our external borders in general.

“The Government has also commented on one of the potential negative effects of these new travel arrangements. This is the freeing up of up to 40% of MIQ facility beds that could be filled with travellers from high risk red zone countries, which would increase the risk of outbreaks in NZ. The announcement today indicated that Government is concerns with this risk and is taking steps to manage it.

“One of the big upsides of these arrangements is that they will encourage New Zealand to benchmark its Covid-19 management practices with best practice in the eight states and territories in Australia. We will all need to improve our external border management to minimise the risk of importing infected cases from red zone countries. This is in important opportunity for more research and evaluation, shared learning, and process improvements across our region.

“Another large benefit is at the international level. The world needs more models of successful international collaboration in managing Covid-19. Successful creation of a green zone that includes NZ, Australia, and an increasing number of Pacific Islands will provide a globally important model. This approach could potentially be rolled out internationally as part of progressive elimination. The combination of effective public health measures and vaccines opens up the possibility of eliminating covid-19 across large areas of the globe and even global eradication in the future (if this provides to be feasible and desirable).”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Nick Wilson, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, comments:

“The Trans-Tasman travel ‘green zone’ is a welcome development given the success of both New Zealand and Australia in eliminating Covid-19 in their communities. The Government’s proposed framework and protocols seem to make good sense – but they will need to be continuously monitored and potentially refined over time. Nevertheless, it is probably a lost opportunity to not have made the relevant Covid tracer apps mandatory by travellers for the first two weeks in NZ and Australia.

“Such quarantine-free travel arrangements by countries that have succeeded with elimination could be a good model for further expansion of these green zones. For example, expanding to include various Asian jurisdictions such as Taiwan and China. But to ensure the success of this Trans-Tasman zone, the NZ Government should also do much more to reduce the risk of outbreaks arising from travellers from the “red zone” countries.

“As we have documented, New Zealand has had 13 border failures since July 2020 – and this is far too many. Even though the vaccination of border workers is a big step forward in New Zealand, we still need actions to further reduce such border control failures. These could include the following:

  1. Reducing the number of infected travellers arriving in MIQ facilities, which requires a particular focus on reducing travel or other measures (such as pre-flight quarantine) for those from “red zone” countries. It is a myth that such measures would render New Zealand citizens ‘stateless’.
  2. Shifting MIQ facilities out of large cities and exploring purpose-built facilities outside of all cities.
  3. Eliminating use of all shared areas in MIQ facilities (including exercise and smoking areas), with returnees staying in their rooms throughout the full MIQ process as is routine in some overseas jurisdictions, such as in Australia.
  4. Mandating daily PCR-based testing of saliva for MIQ workers. This option could also be explored for travellers in MIQ in addition to the current testing regimen to allow for comparative assessments. This testing is being used in parts of Australia and in other countries.
  5. Exploring the idea of offering vaccination to all returnees immediately on arrival in MIQ. Even though this will offer only partial immunity while in MIQ, this measure might still be well worthwhile.

“Collectively these measures are likely to reduce the risk of outbreaks that could threaten the sustainability of the Trans-Tasman Green Zone – and threaten the lives of New Zealanders while the majority of us await getting vaccinated against Covid-19.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Sarb Johal, registered clinical psychologist, comments: 

“The arrangements announced today help to inform and assure New Zealanders about both the opportunities and the risks of quarantine-free trans-Tasman travel starting on April 19.

“As well as ensuring physical health protection, it’s important to pay attention to our collective sense of psychological safety. For some, the idea of borders opening can create anxiety, so it’s important to be clear about what will take place if cases break out in Australia or New Zealand, and how this will be managed.

“For others, their sense of psychological safety has come under pressure from their lack of ability to generate a livelihood, for example in tourism and hospitality. We still don’t know how incoming tourism flows will affect the New Zealand economy as a whole, but it does give some cause for hope that economic fortunes may improve.

“This is an important moment in our journey through this pandemic. Flexibility and rapid action will be key as will clear and transparent decision-making.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Murat Ungor, Department of Economics, University of Otago, comments:

“I welcome the trans-Tasman bubble. As a new wave of cases has emerged across Europe, lockdowns are once again coming into force. Current restrictions have been extended; restaurant, shops, and schools are once again closed in many parts of Europe. This is reminder that the pandemic is not under control anywhere unless it is controlled everywhere. Although this is a pessimistic view at the global level, we have reasons to be optimistic in this part of the world.

“Establishing a quarantine-free trans-Taman bubble is a particularly significant achievement in comparison with the rest of the advanced world. Quarantine-free travel between Australia and New Zealand will restart on April 19.

“According to StatsNZ, overseas visitor arrivals were down by 405,300 to 5,400 in January 2021, compared with January 2020. The biggest changes were in arrivals from Australia (down 142,300), China (50,200), the US (down 41,900), the UK (down 34,500), and Korea (down 14,100).

“The service sector dominates New Zealand’s economy. The lack of international tourists has surely hurt the service sector, such as hospitality and education. Travel exports, including spending by international tourists in New Zealand, were down $504 million in the December 2020 quarter. According to the StatsNZ data, filled jobs in the December 2020 quarter fell by almost 1 per cent. The areas with the largest percentage fall in filled jobs were the Queenstown-Lakes district, the Kaikōura district, and the Mackenzie district.

“These recent statistics suggest that trans-Tasman bubble with the two-way travel corridor is likely to boost regional business, such as Queenstown. And New Zealand’s economy needs such boosts.

“Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures for the three months ended December have been announced after predictions ranging between a 1 per cent contraction through to growth of 0.7 per cent. New Zealand’s economy rebounded 14 percent in the third quarter of 2020, after declining 11 percent in the second quarter. These are extreme figures, at both ends. December 2020 quarter GDP has dropped 1 percent after that record September rebound, which coincides with the pessimistic forecasts. Compared with a year ago, GDP in the fourth quarter of 2020 was 0.9 per cent lower in New Zealand.

“The contraction in the fourth quarter GDP is important. While New Zealand’s latest December 2020 quarterly GDP results only fell by 1 per cent, annually it has declined 2.9 percent, the largest annual fall ever in GDP for New Zealand.

“It is important to note that the trans-Tasman bubble will not solve all economic problems. It will help in the short run. In the medium and long run, however, the structure of economy determines the aggregate output: The capital stock (both physical and human capital), the level of technology, rigidities in the labour market, saving and investment rates, and institutional issue and public policy play important roles.

“The New Zealand economy has at least two structural problems: housing and productivity.

“The IMF’s ‘New Zealand: Staff Concluding Statement of the 2021 Article IV Discussions’ report, which was published on 11 March 2021, warns all of us: “Rising speculative demand for housing, along with historically low interest rates and structural housing supply shortages, is amplifying the housing cycle and heightens financial stability and affordability concerns.” In the meantime, home building and construction services keep expanding. Construction sales reached $19.6 billion in the December 2020 quarter, in part driven by home building, Stats NZ said on 9 March 2021.

“In the realm of productivity, New Zealand lags behind countries we like to compare ourselves with. BNZ chief economist Paul Conway noted last year that “relative to the OECD average, New Zealanders work about 10 per cent more hours per person to produce about 20 per cent less output”. The chair of the Productivity Commission, economist Dr Ganesh Nana, says that “We always have to export, and that’s always been my maxim. To do that we need frontier firms. And we don’t have many, that are out there, taking the world on.” And I noted that from one of the world’s poorest nations in the 1960s, South Korea has transformed itself into an innovative country with well-established global brands, whereas New Zealand, on the other hand, has been experiencing a relative deterioration.”

No conflict of interest.