A behind closed doors debate involving bureaucrats and politicians seems to have temporarily derailed the Australian travel bubble.
But the delay appears to be only temporary. POLITIK understands the bubble is still on,
What is clear is that New Zealand has given up trying to reach a simple agreement with Australia to establish the bubble.
Instead, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told Parliament yesterday we would unilaterally declare the border open to Australians.
And sources say that could come in the second half of April, after the school holidays.
“We have moved from the notion of a joint decision-making framework to having a unilateral decision-making framework where each country reserves its ability to make its own decisions about the suspension and opening up of the Green Zone,” Hipkins said.
Australia’s position is complicated by the fact that every state can have different entry requirements for New Zealanders.
Victoria, for example, requires travellers from Auckland to have a permit to enter while those from the rest of New Zealand may enter freely.
South Australia and Queensland require New Zealanders to go into quarantine when they arrive, while entry into New South Wales is essentially free.
People departing Australia for New Zealand are required to have a negative Covid test 72 hours before departure.
This state-by-state approach in Australia leads to concerns here that a state could suddenly impose new conditions, or New Zealand could suddenly bar flights from Australia, which might leave thousands of New Zealanders stranded there.
Obviously, the politics of this would be negative for the Government if they could not arrange for their immediate repatriation.
And it is why the Government has given up trying to do a deal with the Australian Federal Government.
“I can guarantee if we get a two-way quarantine free arrangement, we’d certainly hear if we had issues in Australia that caused us to take a pause and shut down flights,” Ardern said at her post Cabinet press conference on Monday..
“We certainly have concerns about people being stranded.
“So we need to be prepared for how we would manage that.”
And Australia’s announcement that it will seek a bubble with Singapore further complicates things.
The Singapore proposal will involve all travellers being required to hold a digital vaccination certificate.
Media reports have suggested that Canberra is also looking to allow travellers from other countries to complete their 14-day quarantine period in Singapore before travelling on to Australia.
However, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has said it is not discussing “the concept of a quarantine centre or vaccination hub” with Australia.
“Singapore is currently in discussions with Australia on the mutual recognition of vaccination certificates and resumption of travel, with priority for students and business travellers,” MFA said on Sunday.
It added: “We are not in discussion on the concept of a quarantine centre or vaccination hub.”
But the Australian-Singapore move is one of the things that worry New Zealand officials.
A trans-Tasman bubble effectively creates a single border for Australia and New Zealand, at least as far as Covid is concerned.
Hypothetically it would be possible for Australia to form a bubble with Britain and for passengers from Britain to then come via Australia onto New Zealand without being subject to managed isolation protocols.
Announcing the Australia-Singapore bubble, Australian Tourism Minister Dan Tehan said on Monday that the country hoped to set up a travel bubble that would include Singapore and New Zealand, and perhaps other places such as Fiji.
The key would be to ensure that travellers have valid vaccine credentials, he said.
It seems the issue of third countries is one reason a straightforward agreement with the Australian Government has been shelved.
The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, seemed to confirm this on Monday.
“What would you do if another country choose to open up and you wanted to set up a third or fourth bubble?” she said.
“Those were all things we were working through or in those protocols.
“Since then, we obviously have had states open up.
“So, look, we’re starting again with those with those plans.
“It’s fine, but it does mean we need to seek out different protocols to work around it.”
What is not confirmed is what the time frame for New Zealand to set up a unilateral border opening to Australia might be.
Previously officials and airlines were talking about early July.
Now various sources are suggesting it could be earlier.
“There’s been a lot of speculation around whether or not it will happen at all,” Ardern said on Monday.
“We have never stopped working on the issue of the trans-Tasman bubble.
“And yes, we’ve had cases here, and we’ve had cases in Australia, sometimes it’s slowed things down.
“But the work has never stopped.
“We remain committed to it.”
There is, however, significant pressure on the Government to open up the bubble.
Tourism leaders, particularly Queenstown Mayor Jim Boult, have asked for it to be ready for the winter ski season.
And the international education sector will want to see an early bubble, particularly now that Australia is proposing that international students might be able to enter Australia after quarantining for two weeks in Singapore.
International travel for education, business and tourism contributed A$45 billion (S$46.8 billion) a year to the Australian economy before the pandemic hit and, last week, Universities Australia said that the decrease in international students had cost an estimated 17,300 jobs and A$1.8 billion in revenue.
But Ardern is cautious about the Singapore option.
“If Australia makes the decision to open up and we think that that poses a risk to us, then we will reconsider what our arrangements are,” she said.