Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appeared yesterday to open the door a nudge on the trans-Tasman bubble.
The bubble had been semi-promised for the first quarter this year, but Ardern backed away from that as first Australia and then New Zealand had to implement new lockdowns to cope with sudden outbreaks of community transmission of Covid.
Australia ended its latest restrictions against New Zealand travellers at midnight on Saturday, and Air New Zealand returned to the Tasman yesterday afternoon.
At the same time, Australia has begun vaccinating its border workers, and as a consequence, travel shares rose on the Australian Stock Exchange yesterday.
Travel operator Webjet jumped 8.9 per cent, Flight Centre rose 7.2 per cent, and Qantas advanced 4.3 per cent.
Though New Zealand has also begun vaccinating border workers, shares here did not jump by as much. Auckland Airport was up only 1.78 per cent, and Air New Zealand 2.3 per cent.
The Prime Minister yesterday, however, sounded more optimistic than she has recently that the border — certainly with Australia — might open sooner.
And she appeared to back away from some tough conditions she had previously talked about as needing to be met before a trans-Tasman bubble could open.
“There will be a level of flexibility in whatever arrangements we finally have because I think both countries want the ability to be able to determine whether or not border closures at any given time may be necessary,” she said.
“That then creates a number of knock-on effects, making sure that we have arrangements in place where if we do have a sudden border closure, that those who are travelling are able to accommodate any sudden closures and that likewise, we have a system in place where if we are required to ask people to isolate or quarantine, we feel confident that we can do that well.”
This contrasts with what she was saying as recently as January 26: “For travel to restart, we need one of two things,” she said. “We either need the confidence that being vaccinated means you don’t pass Covid-19 on to others — and we don’t know that yet — or we need enough of our population to be vaccinated and protected that people can safely re-enter New Zealand. Both possibilities will take some time.”
But yesterday rather than those hard bottom lines she was talking about flexibility.
“The reality is there will be occasions when we may choose to act, if we have concerns around internal borders or whether or not there’s a flow of people coming in between internal borders where cases might arise,” she said.
“And likewise, Australia’s demonstrated that they want some flexibility on their side.
“One of the complications has been we’ve always tried to work to a countrywide opening.
“And but as we’ve seen, actually, there’s so much variation sometimes in the way we’re dealing with different states that we have to accept that it’s probably going to have, you know, a level of unpredictability.”
That willingness to accept differences between the states is new.
On February 9, she said: “So much of this arrangement will be around the way the different states behave, and there hasn’t been a formula to it.
“So it’s very hard to establish a regime that doesn’t—and, I understand; this is no criticism because so much of what we do is based on new learnings, but there’s no particular formula around the way the borders operate. And that’s what makes it so tricky for us. “
Yesterday’s statement seemed to suggest she was now willing to accept that different states would manage a future outbreak their own way rather than a national protocol.
She said yesterday that she never accepted that a first-quarter 2021 deadline to open the trans-Tasman border was hard and fast.
“It’s more important to get it right,” she said.
But POLITIK understands there has been a mood change in the Beehive, an acceptance that the vaccine might make a small random outbreak manageable.
And as the Government has just shown, widespread testing and efficient contact tracing have already made a real difference in the way it treats an outbreak.
Thus yesterday, even though there was a new community case related to the Papatoetoe outbreak, the Government was confident enough of its systems to lower the Auckland Alert Level to One.
Thus if a case were to slip in from Australia — and not one has so far — it should be manageable.
Coupled with this is a recognition that Covid is here to stay.
For as long as Covid is widespread in the world, it remains very much a part of our lives, too,” Ardern said yesterday.
“That’s why it’s so important to keep up with the good behaviours that have allowed us to move Auckland back to level one.”
And Ardern hinted yesterday that the border could be more widely opened over the next 12 – 18 months.
“We’re talking very publicly about starting a mass vaccination campaign midyear,” she said.
“Now, we anticipate our vaccine program will take up to a full year.
“Most countries are banking on that as well.
“But in that time, we may well see or feel extra confident in the ability of a vaccine to stop transmission.
“And it may well change up what’s required at the border.”
For maybe the first time since the first Covid lockdown began on March 23, last year, yesterday’s press conference offered a hope that we may be beginning to turn the corner towards normality.