COVID-19: Australia perhaps not ready for trans-Tasman bubble - expert

While the Opposition ramps up its demands for a timeline on when we might open up the border with Australia, one expert has suggested we should perhaps be looking in the other direction first.

There have been no reported cases of COVID-19 in a number of Pacific Island countries, including Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Kiribati and Nauru, and they should be first in line when we relax our border restrictions, says University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker.

"Australia hasn't committed to elimination at this stage - it still has transmission happening in some parts of the country," he told The AM Show on Monday.

A month ago, New Zealand and Australia's different responses to the pandemic appeared to be having similar results. Since then New Zealand appears to have eliminated the virus, with just a single known active case left, while Australia still has a handful of new cases reported each day. 

Dr Baker said Australia's looser restrictions aren't aimed at total elimination of the virus. Australian government officials have previously said they're going for "containment and suppression". 

"If Australia committed to elimination as New Zealand has done, they could join us in this situation," said Dr Baker - who suggested we look beyond our traditional regional partner for other potential sources of tourism and travel. 

"More and more countries across east Asia are eliminating this virus - Taiwan has succeeded, South Korea's going that same direction, Hong Kong - there may be other countries that we would also look at linking to with potentially quarantine-free travel." 

That would open up New Zealand to potential re-infection, he acknowledged. But the alternative would be closing off New Zealand forever, which isn't feasible.

"Generally in health protection you need this multi-barrier approach - you can't just have one defence. You need the borders, you need contact tracing, you need the use of masks in selective situations as well."

Michael Baker.
Michael Baker. Photo credit: Video - The AM Show; Image - Getty/Newshub.

The National Party wants a "timeline" of reopening released as soon as possible to help tourism operators "better plan their future".

"Our tourism operators need confidence to keep their doors open and keep people in jobs," said leader Todd Muller. "If a timeline was put forward these businesses would be able to plan for the future, instead the lack of information only puts their viability in further doubt. We don’t want to see any more businesses close due to a lack of certainty brought about by the Government."

Aside from the border, New Zealand life is set to return to something resembling normality sooner than most countries, having stamped the virus out.