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The trouble with bubbles: When will we get quarantine-free travel in the Pacific?

Much of the Pacific is Covid-free, so our island neighbours need to negotiate opening up travel with New Zealand and other countries carefully. Collin Tukuitonga explains the factors at play.

Most Pacific Island nations have remained free of Covid-19 since the pandemic began in early 2020. This is attributed mainly to early and effective border closures and public health measures by island governments.

Many of the islands’ economies rely heavily on trade and tourism, and most are now struggling with employment and income as a result of the prolonged lockdowns. For example, 80% of the Cook Islands economy is powered by tourism, and the absence of tourists has had a major negative impact on lives and livelihoods of people in that nation.

As a result, Pacific business and political leaders are exploring ways of opening their borders to tourists and other travellers while minimising the risk of introducing Covid-19 into their countries. Families also welcome the prospect of reconnecting with whānau living in the islands. In addition, political leaders in New Zealand are calling for less restrictive measures at the borders to enable seasonal and other workers from the islands to come to New Zealand to assist employers in areas where there is a labour shortage. The leader of the opposition has recently called for a quarantine-free-travel QFT arrangement with Fiji, Tonga and Sāmoa.

The Cook Islands has operated a one-way quarantine-free travel (OWQFT) arrangement with New Zealand since February 2021. Niue is about to start a similar arrangement this week. This arrangement has been widely accepted by local people and those needing medical referrals to Auckland. 

Many Pacific nations wish to see two-way quarantine-free travel (TWQFT) in place as soon as possible are also keen to ensure the risk of introducing Covid-19 is minimised. 

The Cook Islands is making good progress in this space with assistance from the New Zealand government. The introduction of a Covid-19 vaccination programme has provided added impetus for the introduction of TWQFT between the Cook Islands and New Zealand. Additional public health measures are also being implemented. It is important to note that a TWQFT arrangement will increase the risk of introducing COVID-19 into nations previously free of the disease. Opening the border to one nation opens it to the world.

Niue is unlikely to consider a TWQFT arrangement until after the introduction of a Covid-19 vaccination programme. It’s also watching developments in the Cook Islands.

Fiji has been promoting the “Bula Bubble” for some months but there is little enthusiasm for it here in New Zealand. Sāmoa has been unequivocal about its cautious approach given the measles tragedy in 2019. Similarly, Tonga has adopted a precautionary approach and is unlikely to entertain a travel bubble in the short term.

Vanuatu has agreed to the “Tamtam” bubble with neighbouring New Caledonia, which is now delayed due to new community cases in Noumea. Vanuatu has also signalled its wish to explore similar arrangements with Fiji, Australia and New Zealand.

The outbreak in Papua New Guinea excludes any possible travel bubble with other Pacific nations. This situation could escalate rapidly posing a risk to the entire region unless border measures remain in place for travellers to and from PNG.

Australia remains the priority for New Zealand given the social, economic and political benefits of an early TWQFT arrangement. A state-by-state TWOQFT arrangement is likely to be the preferred arrangement.

Much remains uncertain in the evolution of the Covid-19 pandemic and any travel bubble agreed between nations needs to closely monitored and suspended if needed. Island nations should take particular note of community cases in New Zealand as a trigger for reviewing agreed arrangements.

Island nations looking to implement TWQFT arrangements should also consider early vaccination of their populations or delaying planned travel bubbles until the majority of the local populations have been vaccinated.




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