New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham have both signalled that flights between the two countries could resume by the end of the year.
“Ultimately, whether New Zealand opens up to Australia will be a matter for New Zealand, but we are working to make sure we’re ready and hopefully we can see those steps taken this year,” Minister Birmingham said on Sunday.
The remarks signal an acceleration of the long-muted plan and come weeks after PM Ardern said a trans-Tasman bubble had been put on the backburner and Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran said he didn’t believe the routes would start until 2021.
The announcement by multiple figures follows Victoria seemingly getting a grip of its COVID-19 second wave case numbers and New Zealand removing restrictions following a spike of cases in Auckland.
“We’re working hard to make sure every safety precaution and measure is in place through our airports, our border protections, screening processes, to make sure people can travel safely between Australia and New Zealand without risk of encountering other air travellers that may be coming in from higher-risk countries,” Minister Birmingham said on Sunday.
Meanwhile, PM Ardern said it was “possible” flights could resume sooner but added it would need to be on the condition of being able to identify and isolate hotspot areas quickly.
“What we’d need to be assured of is when Australia is saying they have a hotspot (in one state), that the border around that hotspot means that people aren’t able to travel into the states where we are engaging with, with trans-Tasman travel,” PM Ardern said.
“We’ve got a strategy of having a COVID-free country, that’s our ongoing goal and way of operating, and other states have actually operated like that too, like Queensland.”
She was backed up by her Deputy Prime Minster, Winston Peters, who said the country was “raring to go” in restabilising passenger flights.
“Personally, if we can ensure that both in Australia and New Zealand we are safe in what we seek to do, it is very important that we get our tourism back on track as fast as we possibly can,” said Deputy PM Peters.
“The talks are not the problem. It is the empirical evidence about the data that has been the handicap; when you think about how cautious we have tried to be, given the disappointment of the Melbourne experience in particular.”
The comments are a surprise given that both countries appeared to kick the idea into the long-grass.
In an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, Foran said, “I certainly do not believe we will see anything across the Tasman this calendar year. It’s hard to believe it would be before March next year and could well be longer. If it comes back quicker, we’re going to pop some champagne.”
In August, Australian Aviation reported comments by PM Ardern confirming plans for a trans-Tasman bubble had been “put on the backburner” due to Victoria’s second wave.
She also indicated that Australia would need to be free of unknown locally acquired cases – so-called community transmission – for at least 28 days before travel could begin.
Her words marked a turnaround from June, when Deputy PM Peters argued flights between the two countries should restart even if some Australian states were closed.