Audrey Young: NZ poised for new sense of freedom with transtasman bubble

OPINION:

Almost every week these days, a new Covid anniversary is declared.

We’ve had the first anniversary of the first case of Covid, the first anniversary of the borders closing, the first anniversary of the alert level system being announced, and the first anniversary of lockdown beginning, when our homes became the ramparts against the pandemic.

This time a year ago there was also a high level of anxiety about how bad the health crisis would be and whether the economy would collapse.

It is not exactly clear when the first anniversary of the first mention of a Transtasman bubble will occur.

But it is unlikely the Government will want to highlight it when it decides on Tuesday on a start date.

That would only reinforce how long it has been, not just from the days it was simply wishful thinking, but from the time it has been a practical possibility.

For six months there has been half a bubble operating: Australians states generally have not required arrivals from New Zealand to quarantine, with a few occasional exceptions.

Jacinda Ardern has been cautious all the way through the management of Covid, and has largely had support for that approach.

But in terms of Australia she has been cautious in the extreme, given there have been only three cases from Australia since August from 23,447 arrivals from Australia over the same time period, including apparently one this year.

No cases from Australia this year have been declared in daily media statementsabout the country of origin and date the virus was detected. If it was late in the stay, it could have been caught in managed isolation compared with, say, detection on day zero which would almost certainly mean obvious importation.

The early caution about the transtasman bubble may have been justified by New Zealand not having confidence in Australia’s systems as well as concerns about New Zealand’s contact tracing system.

The Government’s reluctance can no longer be justified with Australia doing as well, if not better, on controlling Covid than New Zealand.

It is sheer serendipity that current conditions abroad will protect Ardern against accusations of over-caution as new waves hit Europe and Brazil and Queensland has had a snap lockdown.

That may even up the political scales between the economic hawks here who believe a bubble should have been operating a long time ago and the health doves who would rather wait, thanks, until Covid is extinguished.

In terms of timing, the New Zealand Government calculated, probably correctly, there was no great appetite for the bubble to be opened before the summer holidays.

Straight after the holidays the system was coping with the Northland case in January and then the Valentine’s day cluster.

The Government also appeared to have been hanging out for the perfect bilateral agreement that would codify the way in which both countries should respond to given situations.

Australia’s sudden snap suspension of quarantine-free travel from New Zealand in response to the Northland case (the woman with the South African variant who visited 30 shops) surprised the New Zealand Government, although it should not have.

While mutual consistency for suspension of travel would be desirable, it would be impossible to codify every situation into a set of rules and, of course, both countries were always going to retain the right to shut the border, no matter unfair the other perceived it as being.

Traveller beware: the Government won’t be there to help. That is the concept every transtasman traveller needs to understand – along with the need to have an emergency kitty.

Traveller beware: the Government won’t be there to help.

The announcement of the start date on Tuesday marks a new phase of Covid-19 management.

It will mean a greater sense of freedom – even for many who have no plans to visit Australia it will bring a greater sense of freedom.

But it should come with cautionary measures as well – at the very least, some compulsory requirements for visitors to record where they have been.

One of the biggest issues facing the Cabinet on Tuesday is not what date to start the bubble but what to do with the spare capacity in MIQ.

Australian arrivals account for 40 per cent, or 1800 places, in the fortnightly isolation.

What is very clear from the signals being sent from the Beehive is there will no expansion of places from hot zones such as India, which has been the source of a surge in cases in the past couple of weeks.

That would increase the risk of a border failure in MIQ.

MBIE ‘s Megan Main on Thursday thankfully announced the fortnightly allocation of emergency cases in MIQ would expand from 250 to 350, along with an expanded criteria, which will use up some of the extra capacity.

The extra capacity needs to be used for arrivals who will help the economy to recover including foreign students, migrant workers for sectors with labour shortages, and to address the terrible plight of split migrant families.

With any luck, this time next year will about sharing Easter with Australian relatives and friends than any Covid-related anniversary.

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