Thursday, March 25, 2021

Bubble trouble

Should New Zealand and Australia allow their residents quarantine-free travel between the two countries? For months, there’s been demand for that, and speculation on when it might begin. It happens every time we go more than a few weeks without a community outbreak—until one country or the other has another community outbreak and has a localised lockdown, and the idea fades for a time. Then, repeat the cycle. The stark reality is that the only way the virus can get into either country is through people arriving from overseas, so allowing anyone in without quarantine is an enormous risk.

At her Post-Cabinet press conference on Monday, March 22, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said (PDF transcript) that, “We intend to announce the commencement date for the trans-Tasman travel bubble on 6 April. Just to be clear, we intend to announce the commencement date for trans-Tasman travel on 6 April” [emphasis added]. She needed to make clear that the bubble itself wasn’t going to start then, merely the announcement of the date when it will.

The prime minister said:
“We… know that many New Zealanders are nervous. They don’t want to put everything we’ve fought so hard for at risk, and they want us to proceed in the same vein as our overall COVID response, and that is with caution.”
So, she outlined the five conditions that will need to be met before the travel bubble can begin:
  1. That our response framework for when there are cases in Australia is fit for purpose and ready.
  2. We have measures in place to effectively contact trace travellers from Australia should we need to.
  3. All technical issues are resolved, including transiting passengers and managed isolation fees when, for instance, passengers arrive in either Australia or New Zealand but their ultimate destination is different.
  4. That we have the appropriate regulatory mechanisms in place.
  5. That airlines, airports, and agencies are ready. Much work has already been done here with issues like crew separation from high-risk areas and for when they would fly in a quarantine zone, and red and green zones at our airports.
Up until now, the lack of a vaccine has kept the risk extremely high, but the other thing that’s gummed up the works is that each of Australia’s states sets its own policies and conditions of entry. Some states allowed Kiwis to enter without quarantine, while others didn’t. That made it extremely complex, and could get Kiwis in trouble if they arrived in one state, then departed for another where they didn’t have quarantine-free entry. Moreover, since New Zealand had no control over people flying from Australia—and different states had different ways of dealing with the pandemic—all Australians entering New Zealand had to go through the mandatory 14 days in managed isolation, just like everyone else—including New Zealanders.

So, there’s a lot of stuff to be sorted out before quarantine-free travel can begin, but even when it does, it will pay to be cautious: If someone travels to the other country and there’s an outbreak that pops the travel bubble, travellers will be stuck in the other country—and at their own expense, because no company will issue travel instance to cover that possibility. Worse, it could mean that a Kiwi would have to book—and pay for—a two-week stay in managed isolation, and slots are often booked out weeks/months in advance. So, if the borders were closed because of an outbreak, it’s possible a Kiwi could be stranded in Australia for weeks—or even months. Personally, I think that’s too big a risk for me. Others will make other choices.

Like many people, I don’t think it’s a good idea to risk community transmission, and we must proceed carefully. Once the vast majority of New Zealanders and Australians are vaccinated, everyday risk will be quite low—not gone, just dramatically lower than it is right now. That assumes, of course, that there are rigorous systems in place to totally separate quarantine-free travellers from those transiting or arriving from some other country—and that includes better protecting border workers who are currently one of the best routes for the virus to get loose—and that very thing was announced later on Monday evening, and that, in turn, led to two businesses closing for a deep clean because of possible contact with an infected person. That’s only a tiny example of what could happen if a group of infected Australians arrived in New Zealand and didn’t have to go through managed isolation.

On the other hand, good planning could help the situational all around. In an explainer for Stuff, ”Trans-Tasman bubble: Why it may lead to more Covid-19 cases”, Keith Lynch points out that removing Australians from managed isolation opens rooms for people from potential Covid hotspots. While that could mean soaring numbers of cases in managed isolation, if the government didn’t automatically re-allocate those rooms and kept some in reserve in case the border closed and Kiwis needed them to get home from Australia, it could reduce the burden on Kiwis were stuck on the other side of the Tasman when the borders closed. That’d be a big help—but it doesn’t really make me feel any more secure about travelling to Australia.

International travel will take a very, very long time to get back to anything even close to what it once was, but achieving that goal won’t be helped by taking too many big risks too fast. Caution is what got New Zealand to the point where life is essentially like it was pre-Covid. We don’t—can’t—risk destroying all that hard work.

Still, if any two countries are in a position to make a quarantine-free travel bubble work, it’s New Zealand and Australia. It’s not without risk, but, then, nothing in life is. Maybe the benefits will far outweigh the risks. I suppose we’ll find out relatively soon.


Roger Owen Green said...

An Ask Arthur Anything request:
Just how IS the vaccine distribution in NZ (and Australia, if you know) going?
How many have been vaccinated once? Twice?
What vaccines are you using?
Is there any vaccine hesitancy? By which groups (political, ethnic)?
Are there populations underserved?
Who is doing the vaccinations? Hospitals, health departments, pharmacies, personal physicians?

Arthur Schenck said...

Good idea! I'll try to get to it as early as this weekend.