As New Zealand appears to have completely eradicated the coronavirus – at least for now – all eyes are on when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will open the trans-Tasman travel bubble to Australia.
The announcement that our neighbours across the ditch were COVID-19 free was greeted with joy around the country, and means the nation of 5 million people will be among the first to welcome throngs of fans back into sports stadiums, embrace crowded concerts and remove seating restrictions from flights.
It has been 17 days since the last new case was reported, during which time an additional 40,000 people have been tested, bringing the total number tested to about 300,000.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was confident New Zealand had halted the spread of the virus, and while opening the borders is on the cards not only for Australia, there was still a long way to go before a decision on international travel could be made.
“At the moment we just need to make sure they’re (Australia) in a similar position to us in terms of how they’re tracking for cases,” Ardern told The AM Show on Tuesday.
“We have to make sure that we feel that we are not losing any of our gains by making the decisions that we’re making – different (Australian) states are in different positions at the moment.
“We’re working on a framework at the moment that would help us not just with Australia, because we might need to make these decisions with other countries in the future.”
Ms Ardern said that while she was confident they had eliminated the transmission of the virus in New Zealand “for now”, keeping cases at zero would be a “sustained effort”.
“We almost certainly will see cases here again, and I do want to say that again, we will almost certainly see cases here again, and that is not a sign that we have failed, it is a reality of this virus,” she said at a news conference.
“But if and when that occurs we have to make sure – and we are, that we are prepared.” More cases are likely to be imported as people enter the country. For now, the border remains shut to all but citizens and residents, with some limited exceptions.
Everybody who does enter has to go into quarantine. Ms Ardern announced that the Cabinet had agreed to remove almost all remaining virus restrictions from midnight, with the exception of the border strictures.
Ms Ardern said while her government was concentrating on a possible reopening of borders without quarantine measures with Australia, there were other surrounding countries free of COVID that could also come into the mix, including the Cook Islands and Taiwan.
“I think New Zealanders wouldn’t want to jeopardise where we are and put ourselves back into levels of restrictions because we haven’t been rigorous at the border, so we will be rigorous at the border,” she said, noting Samoa would not yet be part of such arrangement.
“Samoa would need to want to (open) and at this point – they have had experience with measle outbreaks and so they’re taking a very cautious approach.
“Other Pacific Island nations, yes we would love to see whether or not we’re in similar positions. Places like Cook Islands (and) Niue look to have been COVID free – you would assume, of course, that we would be looking in that direction.
“We also have to make sure that we’re getting all of the border settings right – (there’s) quite a lot of logistic work to do on the ground and that’s what we’re working on at the moment.”
Experts say a number of factors have helped New Zealand wipe out the disease. Its isolated location in the South Pacific gave it vital time to see the devastating spread of the virus in other countries. Ms Ardern also acted decisively by imposing a strict lockdown early in the outbreak.
Just over 1500 people contracted the virus in New Zealand, including 22 who died.
Eliminating the virus won’t end the economic pain for the country. Thousands of people have lost their jobs. The tourism industry, which accounts for about 10 per cent of the economy, has been particularly hard hit.
– With AP