Australia and New Zealand look to create ‘trans-Tasman travel bubble’

Australia and New Zealand will hold talks on establishing a “trans-Tasman travel bubble” on Tuesday in one of the first moves by nations to re-establish international travel connections following their success in suppressing coronavirus.

In an unusual move, Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, will join Australia’s cabinet meeting to discuss the steps required to resume unrestricted travel between the countries and work on a Covid-19 contact tracing mobile phone app.

It follows moves by both Australia and New Zealand’s trade ministers, and some of their Asia-Pacific counterparts, to agree guidelines to enable essential business travel.

Ms Ardern told reporters not to expect an immediate relaxation of international travel restrictions with Australia, which currently entails a mandatory 14-day quarantine period for passengers in either direction.

But she said Wellington and Canberra were working towards similar timelines for resuming quarantine-free travel, which would provide huge advantages to both nations.

“Both our countries’ strong record on fighting the virus has placed us in the enviable position of being able to plan the next stage in our economic rebuild and to include trans-Tasman travel and engagement in our strategy,” she said.

New Zealand authorities reported no new cases of coronavirus on Monday for the first time since March 16. Australia has 6,825 confirmed cases but has slowed the rate of infections dramatically and begun to ease social distancing restrictions and open up parts of its economy.

In preparation for the resumption of Australia’s rugby league season on May 28, the New Zealand Warriors were granted permission to fly to New South Wales at the weekend to begin training in Tamworth. Each team member must quarantine for two weeks, keeping a 1.5m distance from each other while eating dinner at separate tables at their hotel, according to local media.

On Saturday, trade ministers from Australia, Canada, South Korea, New Zealand and Singapore agreed a multilateral effort to resume the flow of goods, services and personnel. The plan includes “guidelines to allow, on an exceptional basis, essential cross-border travel for purposes such as maintaining global supply chains, including essential business travel”, according to a joint statement.

Ben Cowling, a professor in epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong, said while such agreements might re-enable travel without 14-day quarantines for travellers, the resumption of flights would still raise the risk of new opportunities for new infections.

“Not everywhere will be able to do this — and also it is the kind of thing that may be in place for a while and then stopped for a while if numbers [of new infections] were to go up in a particular place,” he said.

Countries still face difficulties returning to normal trade and travel with China, a critical market and trade partner for most.

Beijing, which initially lobbied governments to keep borders open when the Covid-19 outbreak emerged from Wuhan in January, has since implemented tough border controls blocking most foreigners from entering China.

The restrictions have caused big problems for South Korean companies, which have relied heavily on China to serve as a market, a manufacturing base and as a supplier of intermediary electronic and industrial products used by its tech, car and shipping manufacturers.

In another sign of progress, however, South Korea last week secured an agreement with Beijing to help its business people gain exemptions from China’s strict coronavirus travel restrictions.

The South Korean foreign ministry said five Chinese cities and provinces would start allowing fast-tracked entry for some South Korean business people this month.

The deal was announced last week as Seoul reported its first day of no new local transmissions for the first time since February. This week it will further ease social distancing measures.

In Europe, French rules that will require arrivals from abroad to be quarantined for 14 days after arrival because of the coronavirus pandemic will not apply to travellers from the EU, the Schengen zone or the UK, the Elysée palace said on Sunday.

 Additional reporting by Victor Mallet in Paris