Time for a Trans-Tasman bubble

Roger Partridge
NZ Herald
8 December, 2020

The sounds of cricket on the radio are already wafting over campgrounds around the country. Who would wish to spend the holidays anywhere else in the world?

Yet despite summer’s allure, the closed border is causing immeasurable pain.

With managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities at bursting point, many families remain separated from loved ones trapped overseas. More than 30,000 workers have lost their jobs since the global pandemic began. And a new survey from Business New Zealand reveals the border chokehold is putting countless more Kiwi livelihoods at risk.

Strangled firms

More than half of survey respondents said international workers are critical to their business.

Unfortunately, the closed border and constrained MIQ facilities are strangling the supply of skilled workers, customers and investors entering New Zealand. Projects are being delayed and business opportunities unnecessarily lost – not to mention lost Kiwi jobs.

Business New Zealand chief executive Kirk Hope said the findings highlight New Zealand’s precarious economic position and its dependence on decisions at the border.

Hope said the Government must treat recovering from the Covid-19 lockdown with the same urgency as the health response and use the “great expertise and global networks of New Zealand firms to work with the Government on next steps.”

Yet the Government is eerily silent on just what is next. It has also shown a stubborn resistance to engaging with the private sector to ease the stranglehold created by its limited – and poorly managed – MIQ capacity.

Before the Christmas rush, statistics from the Ministry of Business, Immigration and Employment revealed MIQ occupancy rates were tracking at about 70%. To put that into perspective, the unused capacity in just one fortnight would have accommodated all the critical worker applications made by Kiwi firms between June and September.

For several months both business lobby groups and the New Zealand Initiative have been calling for the Government to adapt its booking and allocation systems so that scarce MIQ slots are used more efficiently. Unfortunately, the calls have fallen on deaf ears.

Even more unfortunately, it is New Zealand families, firms and workers who are suffering the consequences.

Trans-Tasman solution?

News that Western Australia has reopened its connection with Victoria today offers some hope.

After one of the world’s strictest and longest lockdowns, Victoria has now been Covid-free for more than a month. The State’s success is good news for New Zealand, as it paves the way for the long-awaited Trans-Tasman bubble.

Kiwis returning from Australia take up about 40% of New Zealand’s 6000-a-fortnight MIQ places. Quarantine-free travel between New Zealand and Australia would free up enormous capacity for Kiwis returning home from elsewhere in the world.

A Trans-Tasman bubble would also allow the Labour Government to more than make good on its election promise to reserve 10% of MIQ spaces for critical international workers.

The benefits of quarantine-free travel from Australia go beyond simply easing the MIQ stranglehold.

Twenty-five million Australians have been cooped up in their homes for most of the year. No one likes travelling more than Australians. Opening the border to Australians with cabin fever would be an enormous boon to New Zealand’s beleaguered tourism and hospitality sectors.

The Trans-Tasman bubble concept was first mooted way back in April by deputy prime minister Winston Peters. But by early August, prime minister Jacinda Ardern squashed the idea after Australia's levels of community transmission started rising.

Ardern said a period of 28 days free from community transmission was a prerequisite for quarantine free travel from Australia (or any other destination).

Victoria has been the weak link for other Covid-free states in Australia. But it has now been free from community transmission for almost 40 days. Of course, like New Zealand, there have been local outbreaks in other Australian states that previously eliminated Covid-19. Most notable has been the 33 cases in the Parafield cluster in South Australia. But with no new cases during the past week, there is every reason for optimism that South Australia will once again meet the New Zealand’s 28-day Covid-free rules.

In any case, the risk profile of all Australian states is now indistinguishable from New Zealand’s. Travel between Melbourne and Victoria is no more risky than travel between Auckland and Queenstown – or between Brisbane and Perth.

Western Australia’s fortress mentality should be very familiar to Kiwis. But if it can open its borders to its Australian neighbours, then surely New Zealand can too?

To ensure safety is not compromised, Trans-Tasman travel will require some risk-based protocols. Masks on planes, layers of hygiene for aircraft and airports and separation of Australian passengers from other arrivals will all be needed.

It may be a good idea to give every Australian visitor a Covid card to assist with track and trace. Kiwis will also want the reassurance of both pre- and post-flight testing of all Trans-Tasman passengers.

None of these hurdles are insurmountable. And nothing will do more to ease the pressure for Kiwi families and firms of the current border pains.

As the summer holidays approach, the best Christmas present the Government could give Kiwis is a bit more freedom. The freedom to share our country with our Aussie neighbours.

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