A border checkpoint north of Perth in June 2021. Photo by Matt Jelonek/Getty Images
A border checkpoint north of Perth in June 2021. Photo by Matt Jelonek/Getty Images

PoliticsNovember 9, 2021

NZ faces a crunch call on Auckland’s Christmas border. What can we learn from Australia?

A border checkpoint north of Perth in June 2021. Photo by Matt Jelonek/Getty Images
A border checkpoint north of Perth in June 2021. Photo by Matt Jelonek/Getty Images

Our trans-Tasman neighbour, too, has parts of the country that have given up on elimination and others that are clinging on to zero-Covid. Toby Manhire looks at the settings, the reopening timetables, and holiday travel prospects across the ditch.

Getting out of Auckland in the leadup to Christmas is a nightmare at the best of times. Anyone who has attempted that annual challenge, whether by road or air, will have been utterly unshocked by the reaction to Chris Hipkins’ gentle floating of this idea: “It might be that people get allocated a time in which they can travel.” Aucklanders woke in cold sweats to visions of countless standing on their cars, maniacally waving their appointment slips. Would motorists be required to take a test on day six of their queue at the Bombay Hills?

To be fair to Hipkins: has anyone got a better idea? How else do you avoid the bottleneckiest, logjammest gridlock of them all, if every day you need to get 40,000 people tested and their vaccination status and test results checked on the way out? Number plate recognition sounds good, until you think about the technology required and the fact that number plates are attached to cars, rather than human beings. 

The cleanest answer would be traffic lights across the country. Not literal traffic lights, but the new “Covid-19 Protection Framework”, which is designed for a post-elimination, vaxed-up Aotearoa. The trouble is that while Auckland is on course to arrive in a month or so at the 90% double-dose trigger point of the new system, it’s almost impossible to see the rest of the country’s DHBs getting there by Christmas, if at all. At the scheduled November 29 cabinet review the temptation will be to declare “near enough!” and plough ahead with the new approach nationwide. “Pragmatic” is the word of choice this week for the government and that would be blissful in its simplicity. But it would also invite widespread condemnation, especially among advocates for the most vulnerable. 

Tourism operators and distanced families may be anxious to welcome the people of Tāmaki Makaurau to their bars and backyards. There are plenty of others around the country, however, who would much prefer the team of 1.7 million remain embraced in an iron belt, lest a swarm of human virus vessels spill into their Covid-free paradise. The least vaccinated areas tend to be those that measure high on the social deprivation index. They’re more likely to have a higher Māori population. Remember the rhetoric Hipkins deployed to skewer the National Party’s reopening plan? The opposition, they said, were “willing for Kiwis to get Covid for Christmas”. Those words could haunt him.

Jacinda Ardern confirmed the core commitment yesterday. “For the summer break and for Christmas, Aucklanders will be able to leave Auckland, regardless of what is happening around the rest of the country. We cannot say that Aucklanders need to stay within Auckland at a time of year where traditionally of course they’ve been reunited with family and friends,” she said. “What we need to do is put in place the protections to give additional reassurance to the rest of the country around that movement, and that’s what we’re working on.”

It had been expected that to leave Auckland at Christmas you’d need to show evidence of full vaccination and a negative test, tougher measures than those demanded of people who are currently permitted to travel in and out of Auckland. Yesterday, however, deputy prime minister Grant Robertson left open the possibility that a test may not be a requirement, telling Newstalk ZB: “The logistics of making that work are tough. The main thing is to make sure that everybody is vaccinated.” The requirements will be announced next week, along with the date it kicks in.

It’s a unique predicament the government therefore finds itself in. The closest analogue is also close geographically: Australia. While internal borders are a strange concept to us, Australia is sliced like a pie into six states and three territories. In normal times those internal borders have been largely invisible, but the pandemic has changed that, with different states going their own ways. The two biggest states by population, New South Wales and Victoria, have thrown in the towel on elimination and have thus expedited process of reducing restrictions, just as in Auckland. The remaining states and territories are more or less like the remainder of New Zealand: they continue to pursue zero-Covid, while plotting out a transition for opening up to the rest of the country and the rest of the world. 

So what are the settings and plans across the ditch, and how are they dealing with pressure to allow separated loved ones to reunite at Christmas? Each state is tackling the issue in its own way. While in that spread-eagled nation there are no conspicuous headlines about hold-ups at road borders or airports, there are reports of “a country cut in half” by a mish-mash of rules.

Victoria and New South Wales

Big delta outbreaks in both states changed everything. Australia’s two most populous states have seen high case numbers and many deaths, with the silver lining of high uptake in vaccinations. Already most of the country, which present negligible Covid risk, had been permitted to travel into the states. As of Friday, NSW and Victoria in large part dissolved border restrictions between them, meaning that just about everyone can travel freely, though people aged 16 or over who have not been vaccinated are not permitted into New South Wales for recreation or holiday.

Both states have already opened up to international arrivals who are fully vaccinated and provide evidence of a negative test within 72 hours of travel and another negative result 24 hours after arrival.

Western Australia

The state has pursued a successful hardline approach against Covid-19, introducing snap lockdowns repeatedly at the sign of any seepage into the community. With a population of 2.7 million, Western Australia has seen just over 1,000 cases and only nine Covid deaths. It’s a long way from the big states to the east in more ways than one.

On Friday, WA announced its “safe transition plan”, which would see the state fully reopen to the rest of the country once 90% of residents aged 12 or over had two doses of the vaccine. At current rates that will happen late January at the earliest. That means the door is closed to interstate travel from Victoria and NSW, even for people who’ve been vaccinated and return negative tests. “I acknowledge some people will be frustrated they may not be able to be reunited with family from New South Wales or Victoria over Christmas,” said premier Mark McGowan. “To rush it increases risk and increases harm.” He’s received a volley of abuse for that decision, he says.

Once that 90% target is hit, arrivals aged 12 and above will be permitted as long as they can prove they’re fully vaccinated or have a medical exemption and produce evidence of a negative PCR test taken in the 72 hours prior to travel. 

Under current settings, people from states classified as “very low risk” (Northern Territory, South Australia, Tasmania and Queensland) can head to WA quarantine-free as long as they produce a “G2G Pass”, where you register your details and health status. 

Those travelling from “medium risk” jurisdictions (as of today, ACT) have a steeper task: you need to provide proof of vaccination, a negative test and self-isolate “at a suitable premises” for 14 days. 

For high risk jurisdictions (currently that’s just NSW), just about everyone is barred from entry, with some exceptions, including returning residents applying on compassionate grounds. They must follow the rules above, plus a few more. Then there’s extreme risk, a status which Victoria holds alone at this point. For them, there’s not even an exemption on compassionate grounds. 

Tasmania

The great state of Tasmania, which ingeniously has wrapped its border in salt water, is another that has had a comparatively excellent Covid response, with just 237 cases and 13 deaths.

In late October the state premier, Peter Gutwein, announced a plan for borders to open on December 15, when 90% of those eligible are expected to be fully vaccinated. At that point, anyone who is fully vaccinated and has returned a negative PCR test within 72 hours can head across the Bass Strait quarantine-free. 

 

Those new rules alarmed some public health experts, but delighted business groups in the big cities across the water. “If you want to go shopping in Melbourne, if you want to go and watch a horse race in Sydney and you’re away for a couple of days, you will be able to return as long as you’re fully vaccinated without meeting the 72-hour test rule,” said Gutwein.

The state’s current rules for interstate arrivals are similar for the most part to Western Australia’s. Details are here.

Queensland

Another state with an enviable record: just seven lives lost. The Queensland plan is for quarantine-free arrivals for those who are fully vaccinated from December 17. Those who are travelling from high-risk areas will need to have tested negative within the previous 72 hours.

“We have to reunite families – this is fundamental,” said state premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, announcing the plan. 

According to reports yesterday, the state government is considering moving that date forward.

South Australia

Only four people have lost their lives to Covid in SA. The state has, however, signalled that it will reduce quarantine requirements on November 23, then open its borders to fully vaccinated arrivals from other parts of the country when it hits 90%, which state premier Steven Marshall said he hoped would be before Christmas. 

ACT

The Australian Capital Territory allows fully vaccinated people entry even if they’ve been in Victoria or NSW, but they need to fill in an exemption form. Non-vaccinated people must isolate on arrival for 14 days.

Northern Territory

With just over 200 cases and no lives lost, NT is proud of its Covid response, and some quarantine requirements are set to remain in place all the way up to Christmas. Parts of NT went into a snap lockdown after a case emerged at the end of last week.

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Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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