Navigating through challenges and risks in the Australia-New Zealand travel bubble

The Australia-New Zealand travel bubble will allow quarantine-free travel for residents between the two countries from 19 April; but officials will continue to face the challenge of successfully segregating these travellers from those arriving from high-risk COVID-19 countries, while travellers will still face the risk of ad-hoc border closures.

The much-awaited Australia-New Zealand travel bubble, a zone in which quarantine-free travel is permitted between residents of the two countries, will launch on 19 April. Until then, New Zealand has a one-way travel agreement with Australia which allows New Zealand-based travellers entry into parts of Australia (barring Western Australia) without COVID-19 related testing and quarantine requirements; however, travellers from Australia, including returning residents to New Zealand, were subject to 14 days quarantine at government facilities at the traveller’s own cost. This has deterred many New Zealanders from visiting Australia for non-essential purposes. The two-way Australia-New Zealand bubble will enable family members of residents of these two countries to reunite without worrying about quarantine costs and help revive tourism. However, government officials and travellers must be prepared to navigate through the various challenges and risks that persist in the Australia-New Zealand travel bubble to reap its benefits.

New Zealand officials delayed reopening their borders to Australian travellers by seven months partly due to the setting up of several internal mechanisms to safely receive travellers from low risk COVID-19 countries. Airport officials have to ensure that travellers on green zone flights (flights arriving from COVID-19 low-risk countries) are received, screened for signs of COVID-19 and processed in areas separate from those where travellers from other COVID-19 risk countries arrive. Any lapses in airport health screening or hygiene measures have the potential to trigger a community outbreak, as seen in Melbourne in mid-February 2021; Melbourne Airport’s Terminal 4 was a COVID-19 exposure site after an airport worker came in contact with infected returned travellers which triggered a brief closure of the airport, including flights from New Zealand.

Australia’s federal system, which has allowed its states to adopt entry measures for international travellers separate from federal government guidelines has the potential to complicate and even derail the Australia-New Zealand travel agreement. Between October 2020 and April 2021, each Australian state/territory, starting with New South Wales and the Northern Territory, slowly reopened their borders to New Zealand, while Western Australia only allowed quarantine-free entry to New Zealand travellers who spent 14 days in a COVID-19 free area of Australia first; during this period the New Zealand government insisted that until all of Australia was open to New Zealand travellers, New Zealand will not reciprocate the travel arrangement.

Western Australia officials have indicated that when the new travel bubble kicks off on 19 April, New Zealand travellers will be able to enter the state, but some additional measures will be in place to ensure that travellers who are not from New Zealand, do not enter Western Australia. Any further stringent entry restrictions by Western Australia or other state officials on New Zealand travellers, which are separate from the Australia-New Zealand travel agreement, may prompt New Zealand to back out of the arrangement.

People travelling between Australia and New Zealand will continue to face the risk of being stranded or subject to quarantine in the event of ad-hoc border closures. As per the new travel arrangement, any detection of an unknown source of community transmission in Australia which triggers a short-term lockdown in that area will result in an immediate suspension of flights between the affected parts of Australia and New Zealand for 72 hours; Australia has adopted similar measures during cases of community transmission in New Zealand. In the event of multiple COVID-19 cases of unknown origin in Australia which may trigger a long-term lockdown, there will be a prolonged suspension of flights between the affected areas of Australia and New Zealand. In cases of community transmission in either country, returning travellers will be subject to further testing and quarantine measures. To mitigate these risks, travellers can opt for tickets with flexibility to change travel dates. They should also purchase travel insurance and carry extra clothes and other items in case their stay gets prolonged by lockdown or quarantine measures.

Despite its various challenges, more travel bubbles like the one between Australia and New Zealand, are certain in the region as it is a relatively safe and viable option for travel between two or more countries which have largely contained COVID-19. The Cook Islands has a one-way travel agreement which allows its residents to enter New Zealand without quarantine restrictions, and Australia is looking to create a similar deal with the Cook Islands and other low risk COVID-19 countries like Palau, as is New Zealand. In addition, there are already talks between Australia and Singapore to establish a two-way travel bubble, possibly by July, which could include New Zealand as well, depending on the success of the Trans-Tasman bubble. The success of the travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand, which are among the largest countries in Oceania, will pave the way for reviving international travel in the region in the near-future.

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