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Jacinda Ardern and Scott Morrison in February 2020 (Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern and Scott Morrison in February 2020 (Getty Images)

The BulletinMay 5, 2020

The Bulletin: The prospect of a trans-Tasman travel bubble

Jacinda Ardern and Scott Morrison in February 2020 (Getty Images)
Jacinda Ardern and Scott Morrison in February 2020 (Getty Images)

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Ardern to zoom in to Australian cabinet meeting today, concerning situation arises at Waitākere Hospital, and a Zero Day finally achieved.

Jacinda Ardern will make a rare appearance by a New Zealand PM at the Australian government’s cabinet meeting this morning. It’s a big moment as the prospect of a trans-tasman bubble is talked up – basically, that would mean that the New Zealand and Australian borders would be opened to each other, but not to the rest of the world. It is likely to happen before full reopening of the borders takes place, but as Ardern said yesterday, it won’t be a short-term development. However, if it were to go ahead, it would mean that there would be no 14-day quarantine requirements at each end of the journey.

It’s hard to overstate how important that would be for the tourism industry, as it would add millions of potential customers to their market. As Stuff reported yesterday, the ski fields around Queenstown are absolutely desperate for it, because Australians already made up a large proportion of their base. It also follows moves by respective trade ministers to get essential business travel happening again, reports the Financial Times.

But there are still big hurdles, as that story notes. After all, while new case numbers are low right now, the story quotes epidemiology professor Ben Cowling, who said there would be risks of new infections under the proposal – “it is the kind of thing that may be in place for a while and then stopped for a while if numbers [of new infections] were to go up in a particular place,” he said.  Consideration would also have to be given to contact tracing in those instances, with the job becoming much harder when another country is added into the mix. Radio NZ spoke to epidemiologist Michael Baker, who raised that as a concern – and also noted that right now, the countries have different goals with the approach being taken, which would probably need to be aligned before any opening took place. And thinking about it practically, even at level two (more on that below) New Zealand would still likely be in a position of essential travel only between regions, let alone going overseas.

From the perspective of many Australians, the meeting will be notable as a clash of different approaches. There are quite a few similarities in how the countries have handled Covid-19, but Australia hasn’t locked down in the same way New Zealand has – happily, they haven’t seen the rampant outbreaks that other countries with looser rules have experienced. But among the Australian right wing, there has still been an opportunity in this to push their point of view that more loosening is needed, for example, Sky News host Chris Kenny said he “just hoped Ardern, as a Labor [Australian spelling] leader is not another voice for overdone lockdowns, and exaggerated caution.” Just on the question of comparing competing nationwide approaches – any country that doesn’t have to dig mass graves is arguably a winner, regardless of how they get there.

Finally, it’s going to be very interesting to see how the relationship between NZ and Australia changes over the coming few years. Even as we hold out for the possibility of the Trans-Tasman bubble, full international travel is much further away. It’s no secret that there has been deep friction between the two countries, most recently when Ardern publicly attacked Australian policy on Scott Morrison’s turf. Perhaps the closeness, while the rest of the world is so far away, will have an effect on both policy, and how the two countries relate to each other.

Just quickly, a message from our editor Toby Manhire:

“Here at The Spinoff, members’ support is more important than ever as the Covid-19 crisis lays waste to large chunks of our commercial work. It’s a tight time for everyone, of course, but if you’re able to, please consider joining Spinoff Members to help us stay afloat and keep producing work by the likes of Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris, whose collaborations have had a real impact in New Zealand and around the world.”

A particularly concerning situation has emerged in Waitākere Hospital. Newshub’s Michael Morrah reports that six people on the elderly ward are now considered close contacts of Covid-19 cases, and treated as if they were probable cases. It follows three nurses at the hospital testing positive – and the really worrying bit is that they worked on the Covid ward, and then the next day were rostered on to the ward housing the elderly patients. The Waitematā DHB has apologised, and said they’re planning roster changes. Nurses say they had been raising concerns about this sort of situation for weeks. In terms of the wider cluster around the hospital, Newsroom’s Melanie Reid has gone in depth on the uncertain circumstances of transmission.

We’ll wait and see if those potential cases end up getting reported, but in better news, we had a Zero Day yesterday for the first time in a long time – as in, a day with no new Covid-19 cases or deaths in NZ to report.Here’s a report on the milestone, and what it will mean for the ongoing fight against Covid-19 – as Siouxsie Wiles puts it, we cannot relax yet, because there could still be cases we don’t know about. Warnings were also made at yesterday’s press conferences that people were rushing back out into the world too quickly, with bubble-breaking gatherings still not permitted. It’s worth reiterating that because of the long lag time on Covid cases appearing, the zero day has more to do with the lockdown period than our week at level three.

With all that said, we also got outlines of what level two will look like, if and when we move into it. There’s details of that in the 4.48pm update of yesterday’s live blog – note, these are guidelines that have been issued by the PM’s office, rather than the confirmed rules – they’ll be announced on Thursday.

You’d have to hope the country’s contact system tracing has improved a lot, because this story which began in mid-March is shambolic. Radio NZ’s Charlotte Cook has reported the story of a woman who was on a regional flight on 17 March, developed a horrible case of symptoms consistent with coronavirus ten days later, and over a month after the flight was finally contacted by a contact tracer. There had been a confirmed case on her flight – a fact which she researched and discovered for herself.

Criticism has been levelled at the Epidemic Response Committee that little attention was given to Māori health. Radio NZ’s Te Aniwa Hurihanganui reports that over more than a month of sessions, only two Māori organisations have been invited to speak – and not a single iwi representative has so far been invited to speak. As chairman of the committee, National leader Simon Bridges has sole discretion over who to choose who to invite – he says Māori MPs have been actively involved in crafting the ERC’s programme. The topics for this week are education on Tuesday, followed by health on Wednesday and sport on Thursday – unless there has been a late change, the number of Māori organisations being invited will not increase. Meanwhile, government minister Peeni Henare has admitted that the response so far for Māori is not yet good enough, reports Te Ao News.

A man recently returned from overseas has been allowed to visit his dying father, after a High Court judge granted him a quarantine exemption. The NZ Herald has reported on the case, which is one of just over a dozen similar incidents in which permission has been granted by the health ministry. However, in this instance the man’s request was initially denied, before the courts expedited it through. Much of the decision has been published in the story, and it gives an insight into the sort of legal questions that are being grappled with around the wider lockdown rules.

One of the really interesting economic aspects of the Covid-19 response so far has been major retailers profiting, while smaller players get heavily squeezed. So it was heartening to read this piece by Stuff’s Paul Mitchell about a new dairy opening up in Dannevirke during the lockdown period, to provide another outlet for essential goods. The owner Neil Sayyed said he was spurred into action by the long lines at the town’s supermarket, and while the dairy is “barely breaking even” right now, he’s more interested in the chance to have a business at the heart of the community. This guy also owns a kebab restaurant, and next time I go through Dannevirke I’m definitely checking it out.

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Devoney Scarfe and her Talking Heads pie (Photos: Devoney Scarfe)

Right now on The Spinoff: Emily Writes shares the stories of midwives who have worked through the pandemic. Anjum Rahman urges a pushback against permanently armed police, after the Armed Response Team trial came to an end over the weekend. A group of academics write an important piece about how Covid-19 could end up setting back the course of scientific research. Sam Brooks talks to Kiwibank about what it means to get the Rainbow Tick. Alice Webb-Liddall speaks to the folks from the Student Volunteer Army about their efforts to feed people who can’t go to the supermarket. Fiona Fraser meets a baker who has been dealing with lockdown by making sweary pies. And Teresa Wyndham-Smith writes about Punakaiki, the pancake rocks town without tourists that is now contemplating the future.

Apologies, but I have to break into the bad news about Covid-19 with some entirely unrelated bad news. As Gizmodo reports, Russia is currently being wracked with devastating wildfires, which are sweeping through heavily forested areas of Siberia. Some are reportedly the result of arson, while others are being fanned by unusually hot and dry weather – as was the case in Australia mere months ago. Here’s an excerpt:

The winter warmth means that snowpack disappeared quickly, drying out vegetation and the soil. Conditions throughout April and into May have been freakishly warm as well. In recent days, temperatures have spiked as much as 36 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius) above normal for this time of year, and the heat is expected to hold for at least the next week.

This is all shocking and yet sadly on trend. The boreal forest that rings the northern tier of the world is burning at a rate unseen in 10,000 years. Rising temperatures have played a role by drying out forests and priming them to burn and creating conditions where fires are more likely to spread. That releases carbon dioxide, ensuring ever larger fires by heating up the planet further.

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