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The trans-Tasman bubble is coming. (Image: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsApril 7, 2021

The bubble won’t make it easier for most New Zealanders to come home

The trans-Tasman bubble is coming. (Image: Tina Tiller)

One-third of rooms at border facilities will be freed up by a trans-Tasman bubble, but the government doesn’t plan to make any of them available to returnees from Europe, Asia, Africa or North America. Justin Giovannetti explains.

Quarantine-free travel with Australia will bring a significant boost to an ailing tourism industry and reunite families on either side of the Tasman, but it won’t offer much comfort for New Zealanders outside the bubble.

“This is the next chapter,” prime minister Jacinda Ardern announced yesterday as details of the trans-Tasman bubble were revealed. Certainly it will open up South Island ski slopes for Australians and golden beaches for New Zealanders. But for most returnees to Aotearoa, nothing will change.

None of the 1,300 rooms in managed isolation that are currently occupied by returnees from Australia will be made available to people coming from nearly anywhere, Ardern announced at a press conference at the Beehive yesterday afternoon. That will leave empty about one-third of the 3,700 rooms currently occupied.

Those rooms could still be filled by people coming from lower-risk countries. However, once the trans-Tasman bubble is open, only Antarctica and a few Pacific islands will fit within that category. Some of those countries could also have quarantine-free travel soon, with New Zealand mulling a bubble with the Cook Islands in May.

The number of rooms allocated for returnees from Europe, North America and Asia won’t change after the trans-Tasman bubble takes effect on April 19, said Ardern. There are currently no spaces open for those returnees before late June.

Jacinda Ardern announcing quarantine-free travel between New Zealand and Australia will start on April 19 at the Beehive yesterday (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The decision will be difficult news for a group of migrants that protested on the steps of parliament yesterday demanding the government allow them to bring their families into the country. A number of New Zealanders, including critical workers, have faced nearly a year of rejected requests to bring families home with them. Exemptions for non-resident family members are difficult to obtain under the current system.

The prime minister admitted yesterday that in a cruel twist, most of the affected New Zealanders and critical workers would have been allowed to bring their families with them had they travelled to New Zealand together after Covid-19 hit.

Of the 1,300 rooms now occupied by Australian returnees, 500 will be kept as a contingency if the trans-Tasman bubble were to pop. The government says that if New Zealanders were to travel to Australia become stranded by the appearance of significant community cases, they could be slowly brought back through managed isolation. They likely wouldn’t be charged for their stay at the border.

Part of the government’s decision yesterday acknowledges a demographic truth that has made the border facilities easier to run. Managed isolation has operated for nearly a year, with a quarter or more of its rooms occupied by Australian returnees who have been unlikely to be infected with Covid-19. Only nine have tested positive out of tens of thousands of travellers from Australia. That’s reduced the strain on the quarantine system and the country’s health resources while helping fill rooms.

Suddenly allowing one-third more arrivals from places that present a higher risk of infection could swamp a much smaller quarantine system that rarely has more than 50 or 60 occupants.

Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said yesterday that some of the hotels that have been used to house Australian returnees are also not fit for travellers from the likes of the US or India who are more likely to be infected. Some of those hotels will now be decommissioned, removing capacity from the broader system.

The country’s border facilities used by Australians could start emptying out before April 19. At yesterday’s press conference, Ardern advised returnees from Australia to cancel their travel plans if they intended to arrive before the bubble opens. Anyone entering managed isolation from Australia before then will still need to complete their full stay and could still incur a significant bill.

Returnees from Australia arriving in managed isolation before the 19th won’t be released part way through their stays because of the risk they might have picked up the virus from fellow travellers in their hotels. A number of returnees recently had to remain in managed isolation for longer stays because they were bussed to an exercise area with someone who later tested positive. Rebook your flights until after April 19, the PM advised.

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