Covid-19: Public health experts welcome 'cautious' trans-Tasman travel bubble
Public health experts have welcomed the Government's “cautious” quarantine-free travel bubble with Australia, which they say, if successful, could see the bubble expand to include Asian countries.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announced quarantine-free travel between New Zealand and Australia will start on Monday, April 19.
Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield considered the risk of transmission of Covid-19 from Australia to New Zealand as being low and that quarantine-free travel is “safe to commence,” Ardern said.
The Prime Minister added those undertaking travel will be doing so under ‘flyer beware’.
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Professor Nick Wilson, from the University of Otago’s department of public health, said the proposed framework and protocols seem to “make good sense”, but will need to be continuously monitored over time.
However, it was “probably a lost opportunity” to not have made the relevant Covid tracer apps mandatory for people's first two weeks in NZ and Australia.
Wilson said such quarantine-free travel arrangements by countries which have succeeded with elimination could be a good model for further expansion of ‘green zones’.
For example, expanding to include the likes of Taiwan and China, he said.
To ensure the success of the trans-Tasman zone, government “should do much more” to reduce the risk of outbreaks arising from travellers from ‘red-zone’ countries.
Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker told Stuff he thought the move seemed “very positive”.
Quarantine-free travel will not be what it was pre-Covid-19, and people will need to plan for the possibility of having travel disrupted if there is an outbreak, Ardern said on Tuesday afternoon.
The Government announced a framework for managing New Zealanders in the event of an outbreak in Australia, similar to the current alert level settings.
This involves three possible scenarios, in a traffic-light system: continue, pause, suspend.
If an Australian state went into a short lockdown, flights from the affected state would likely be paused.
If there were multiple cases of an unknown origin, flights would be suspended for a period of time, Ardern announced.
Baker said move was a “positive development” and a signal that New Zealand has “faith” in Australia’s border management, he said.
Australia was considered a low-risk country and the likelihood of people in Australia being infected with the virus is comparable to that in New Zealand, he said.
It presented “no higher risk than those travelling from the North to South Island”, he said.
Baker said he was comfortable with the approach taken by the Government and did not see any obvious gaps in the public health measures set out.
He believed the bubble could have wider implications for other nations – acting as a “model of good practice”.
Microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles was “relieved” to see the Government taking “very cautious steps” in establishing the bubble.
Wiles also said Australia was low-risk, and was pursuing a similar elimination strategy to New Zealand.
“We are safe for a reason, and can do these things for a reason,” she said.
She also welcomed the fact that people who had arrived in Australia within 14 days would not then be able to fly to New Zealand.
Wiles said pre-departure testing was useful in places with high rates of transmission – not currently the case for Australia, which is seeing similar outbreaks to New Zealand.
“It all sounds good,” she said.
There could be a complication if either country was looking to open a bubble to another country, requiring good relationships and systems in place between both countries, she said.
Quarantine-free bubble guidelines
To be eligible to travel to or from New Zealand on a quarantine-free flight, people must not have had a positive Covid-19 test result in the previous 14-day period and must not be awaiting the results of a test taken during that 14-day period.
When those in Australia decide to come to New Zealand, they will be making a booking on a green zone flight. That means that there will be no passengers on that flight who have come from anywhere but Australia in the last 14 days.
They will also be flown by crew who have not flown on any high risk routes for a set period of time.
Passengers will need to provide comprehensive information on how they can be contacted while in New Zealand, complete a pre-departure health declaration and won’t be able to travel if they have cold or flu symptoms.
They will be required to wear a mask on their flight, and will also be asked to download and use the NZ Covid Tracer app while in New Zealand.
On arrival, passengers will be taken through what we call the green zones at the airport – meaning there will be no contact with those who are arriving from other parts of the world and going into managed isolation or quarantine.
Health authorities will also be undertaking random temperature checks of those arriving as an “added precaution”.