As politicians weigh risk of reopening the bubble, a top pandemic expert says he'd happily get on a plane to Australia tomorrow
A trans-Tasman bubble could still be months away, as Australian states squabble and New Zealand takes a wait-and-see approach, but others argue it would be safe and provide an economic lifeline to open the border sooner.
Epidemiologist Michael Baker says he’d happily jump on a plane to Sydney tomorrow to see his brother if the borders were to reopen.
The billions of dollars in travel and trade that flow annually between New Zealand and its nearest neighbour are seen as a salvation that could keep hundreds of businesses afloat.
And Baker, a University of Otago public health professor and expert on pandemics, says a gradual reopening of the borders could happen “quite soon”, as long as the risk was carefully managed.
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“I’d happily hop on a plane tomorrow to visit my brother who’s a GP in Sydney.”
Baker’s brother has been diagnosing people with Covid-19 and his sister-in-law is also an epidemiologist, and they’ve been keeping him up to speed with events there.
“It’s all a matter of risk,” says Baker, who was a leading voice in pushing the Government to take stricter measures at the beginning of the pandemic.
Baker said the use of face masks and digital tracing could provide a high degree of comfort that the coronavirus wouldn't be reintroduced to New Zealand.
“When you were looking at whether you resume large scale travel with Australia, the first thing you would look at is, what’s the risk of someone stepping on a plane who’s currently incubating the virus, and it’s approaching zero.
“Then you think: what do you need to do to make a very small risk manageable. You’ve got quarantine, testing, temperature checking, and tracing people’s movements.”
It would likely require a cap on visitor numbers to begin with, and be carefully monitored before being opened up to the kind of cross-border traffic seen before the pandemic.
“At that point it gets harder because the small risks mount up in proportion to the people. That’s when you have to have systems that can work at a big scale.
“Because it will cost billions of dollars if we lose our elimination status. It’s high stakes. That’s when you start to balance those very small risks.”
Baker says he’d wear a mask during the flight, even though the risk of sitting next to someone who’s infected — particularly from New Zealand — is exceedingly low.
“I think masks are the key barrier we need to have in place given what we know about this virus.”
Opening up the borders would give New Zealand a major advantage to attract not only tourists, but industries such as film and education sectors looking for a Covid-free environment.
Australia’s states have had a patchwork approach to virus containment, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said international travel would only resume when interstate borders had fully reopened..
And this week tensions between state premiers over those differing approaches to resuming nationwide travel turned into a public slugfest, with premiers trading tit-for-tat insults.
NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian said travel restrictions would be ditched by June 1, and suggested her Western Australian counterpart Mark MacGowan was keeping borders closed for popularity. In response, MacGowan claimed he was being bullied by NSW.
Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk this week said her state's border was likely to remain closed until September.
The Australian infighting may make New Zealand's appetite to reopen largely academic.
New National Party leader Todd Muller said it was still “critically important” that tourism resumed with Australia as quickly as possible, but we also needed to consider broadening the bubble.
“It's totally appropriate that Australia is our number one priority, but concurrently we need to be thinking around ‘so how do we open up to China, what does that look like? What do the conditions need to be that gives both countries confidence that people to people engagement should start?'
He said the Government needed to be far more transparent with New Zealand about when and how the borders would reopen.
“It's all very well to signal that they think this is an area that needs to be prioritised, but we need to get clarity around what the conditions are to have it enabled — and that's not clear.”
While agriculture exports were doing well, most other exporters were doing it tough, said Muller.
“I'm not going to wade in and try to pick a month a day or a week that it should happen. I should just say that if I was prime minister this would be an extremely urgent priority. “
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern wasn't available for comment on Saturday, but has previously said the border could open under level 2.
“What we are anticipating now is that our officials and our teams are working respectively on getting our own houses in order at the border, ready to go for a time when both sides of the Tasman feel comfortable that we’re ready to see that travel resume,” Ardern said.
Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield has said the Government will neither recommend nor require the use of face masks. He said this week evidence of their efficacy was “in the balance”.
At the award-winning tourism operator Rotorua Canopy Tours, general manager Paul Button said after a difficult period during lockdown, when they had to restructure, losing 85 per cent of their workforce, there were some positive signs ahead.
They’re reopening the business next week in accordance with level 2 guidelines, and took $5500 worth of bookings in their first few hours.
Around a quarter of Canopy Tours’ business came from the Australian market. And Button believes only when Governments give clear signals that it’s safe to travel, will numbers start to return.
“We’re going to reopen tours next week. With the level 2 guidelines we believe we can deliver our product safely. Hopefully we can get some money in the bank and survive the winter.
“A huge portion of people have taken a financial king hit, but there are also a lot of unaffected people."
If tourists were encouraged to travel by both Governments, he believes there would be pent-up demand.
“And if Air NZ come to the party with some good rates to get everybody moving it will encourage spending and that will flow through the economy.”
The ski season has figured prominently in conversations about a reopening, with many operators in desperate need of cashed-up Australians returning to the slopes.
Jono Dean, the chief executive of Ruapehu Alpine Lifts, NZSki CEO Paul Anderson and Cardrona Alpine Resorts general manager Bridget Legnavsky have been working with Government on behalf of the industry to clarify how ski resorts will operate under level 2 requirements.
Dean, whose firm runs Turoa and Whakapapa ski fields, this week announced the reopening of the Sky Waka gondola at the end of May.
He said while only 10 per cent of Mt Ruapehu’s visitors are from Australia, the proposed trans-Tasman bubble is vital to the recovery of the New Zealand tourism industry in general.
“And of course Mt Ruapehu would welcome any Australian skiers and sightseers, which would probably be towards the end of the winter ski season and into the summer sightseeing season.”
Sunday Star Times