The first trans-Tasman bubble flight from Australia to Wellington lands at Wellington Airport on April 19. (Photo by Mark Tantrum/Wellington International Airport via Getty Images)

What delta means for reopening plans

The trans-Tasman bubble will remain closed as the government rethinks a month old strategy to reopen Fortress New Zealand, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.

Almost a month ago the government unveiled its strategy for reopening the country’s borders. Based on advice from a group chaired by Sir David Skegg, the plan centred on marrying the elimination strategy with welcoming vaccinated travellers. There was a buzz of energy when the prime minister unveiled the “reconnecting framework” and I filed this report at the time. In brief: Starting next year countries would be ranked as low, medium or high risk. Anyone from a low risk country could travel quarantine-free. Those in the middle could undergo modified isolation, while arrivals from high risk countries would undergo a full stint in MIQ.

That plan is now at risk because of the delta variant. Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins told parliament on Tuesday evening that the spread of delta has led officials to start making changes to the month-old plan. “We were looking at a situation where you could stratify countries based on risk, and I think in the delta environment, we actually have to consider whether that’s an appropriate thing to do,” he said.

Each person carrying the variant is now a risk, and pre-departure testing is far less useful when someone can go from infected to infectious in a day. As reported in Stuff, the original strategy had been devised at a time when delta was already known. The Skegg group has now been asked to provide the government with new advice.

What does this mean for the trans-Tasman bubble? Under the reopening plan, the prime minister had said Australian states could be ranked on their risk level and travel could eventually begin again with those that were low risk. While some states like New South Wales and Victoria are likely to remain closed for some time, owing to their high levels of delta infection, others like Tasmania have barely seen any cases this year. With the cornerstone of the reopening plan, a risk rating, now in question, I asked Hipkins yesterday what impact it’ll have on any plans to travel across the Tasman.

“It does bring a degree of realism to the timing around discussions of the trans-Tasman bubble,” he said. An announcement on the trans-Tasman bubble is due this month, but Hipkins quickly said people should not make holiday plans. “I think it would be unrealistic to expect there will be speedy decisions in the next few weeks about reopening the trans-Tasman travel bubble.”

“It’s still a while away,” he added. “Don’t hold your breath.”

In the short term, the government is still going ahead with a pilot project for business travellers. This was an area in which the government went far beyond Skegg’s recommendations and, despite the delta outbreak, Hipkins confirmed it’s sticking with the plan. It’ll be a self-quarantine pilot for a few hundred people who are fully vaccinated and going overseas on a short trip to a destination approved by the government. They’ll need the full backing of a business and a rigorous self-quarantine plan that means they’ll be completely alone for a fortnight. Based on restrictions, it seems like it’ll be limited to people who have a granny flat, a bach or those who live alone and don’t share a ventilation system with anyone else.

In the longer term, it’s unclear when mass quarantine-free travel will resume. Speaking in parliament, Hipkins said a border with nearly everyone going through MIQ won’t last beyond the “global response phase of Covid-19, which is obviously, the pandemic is still raging”. He added there will need to be alternatives, including self-isolation and a rethink of the elimination strategy itself “in a world that will increasingly become more highly vaccinated over the next year, 18 months to two years.”

I asked Hipkins if he expects MIQ to last that long. “The current model that we are working to, whilst it might still have an ongoing role, is unlikely to be the only route into the country over the medium and longer term,” he said. He declined to say whether the short term, in his mind, is the next 18 months to two years.

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