New Zealand has suspended the trans-Tasman bubble to all of Australia for the first time – and hinted it could restart with passengers requiring a negative test to fly.
“There are now multiple cases and outbreaks in Australia in differing stages of containment and the health risk for New Zealand in response to these cases is increasing,” said the country’s COVID Response Minister, Chris Hipkins.
The move, set to initially last until Tuesday night, follows NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian putting the Greater Sydney region into a snap lockdown at just four hours’ notice. The city’s Bondi cluster grew by an extra 11 cases on Saturday, recording 29 locally acquired cases by 8pm Friday.
Minister Hipkins said he was taking the “precautionary step of temporarily widening” the pause to NSW to include all of Australia.
“I acknowledge the frustration and inconvenience that comes with this pause, but given the high level of transmissibility of what appears to be the Delta variant, and the fact that there are now multiple community clusters, it is the right thing to do to keep COVID-19 out of New Zealand,” he said on Saturday night.
The introduction of pre-flight testing would be a significant change to the arrangement, and mirror similar arrangements introduced in countries such as the UK.
On a dramatic Saturday afternoon in Sydney, Premier Berejiklian said there was “no point” in locking down the city for a few days, and her health advice was to sanction a two-week lockdown.
“We do need to brace ourselves for a potentially larger number of cases in the following days and that’s why it’s so important that we take action now,” she said.
“Please know we will get through this. We have had to do this before, we know the drill.”
The surprise move by New Zealand comes just days after the bubble to Victoria reopened after being stopped at the end of last month. That pause was supposed to last for an initial 72 hours, but was repeatedly extended as the state entered its fourth lockdown.
Quarantine-free travel between the two countries only started in April, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern warned the agreement would be temporarily halted in the event of a lockdown.
When New Zealand announced it was starting quarantine-free travel, it said it was doing so under the guidance of what PM Ardern called “flyer beware”. In the event of a COVID cluster, the country will reserve the right to continue, pause or suspend the arrangement.
If a case was found that was clearly linked to a quarantine facility staff member and was well contained, travel will likely continue.
If a case was found that was not clearly linked, and a state responded by a short lockdown to identify more information, New Zealand would likely pause flights from that state in the same way as flights have been paused previously.
But if multiple cases occurred from an unknown origin, flights would likely be suspended for a set period of time. The bubble has previously paused to WA and NSW as well as Victoria.