Coronavirus: Travel bubble with Australia unlikely to reopen until 'much later' this year, if not next year - experts

Australia's inability to get its COVID-19 outbreaks under control means the travel bubble might not be open again until both our countries have widespread immunity, an expert says.

Shaun Hendy, a disease modelling expert at the University of Auckland says that's likely to be "much later this year" - but Aussie experts think even that might be too optimistic.

New South Wales (NSW) on Thursday recorded its highest number of new cases yet in the current outbreak - 262 - and neighbouring state Victoria went into a snap seven-day lockdown to nip an emerging outbreak in the bud

New Zealand paused the travel bubble with Australia for at least eight weeks in late July. Dr Hendy told Newshub NSW simply hasn't been aggressive enough in combating the outbreak, which began in June.

"In New South Wales it's been clear for some time now that their restrictions are not stringent enough to control this outbreak. They're dealing with the Delta variant, which we know is... much more transmissible than what we were dealing with last year. So it is a challenge."

Despite the restrictions clearly not being stringent enough, some Australians have risked their lives to protest against them. Dr Hendy says while they've taken place outdoors "where the risk [of infection] is lower, they could cause further spikes in cases "down the track" - prolonging the bubble pause.

"It's very hard to say when they'll be able to bring this under control. In terms of the New Zealand travel bubble, I wouldn't be prepared to make any guesses at the moment as to when it might be possible to reopen that," said Dr Hendy, whose modelling partly informed the decision for New Zealand to go into a total lockdown last year, successfully wiping out the virus. 

The vaccine rollouts in both New Zealand and Australia lag internationally. Both countries have fully vaccinated about 16 percent of their population. It's not clear what number will give effective herd immunity, as the Delta variant has shown an improved ability to infect vaccinated people compared to the original strain of the virus (vaccinated people who contract the virus are far less likely to fall seriously ill or die, however). 

New Zealand's vaccine rollout got off to an even slower start than Australia's, but has caught up in terms of those fully vaccinated, and is continuing to ramp up. 

How our vaccine rollout compares to some other countries' efforts.
How our vaccine rollout compares to some other countries' efforts. Photo credit: Our World in Data

Australian authorities this week unveiled a plan to reach 80 percent by December.

"We will have everything in place to be able to get to those sorts of numbers by the end of the year, but public willingness to come forward is key and all of us need to keep encouraging everybody to get that vaccination booked and get out and get vaccinated," said Lt Gen John Frewen, head of Australia's rollout. 

But one expert doubts it can be done, saying the plan - dubbed 'Operation COVID Shield' - is six months too late. 

"At best this is an optimistic vision for an improved vaccination rollout that fails to acknowledge and fully address the errors of the past," Lesley Russell, adjunct associate professor at the University of Sydney's Menzies Centre for Health Policy wrote in a piece for The Conversation

She said the plan was high on sloganeering and low on specifics, and is underpinned by "some pretty heroic assumptions". It also leaves out a number of vulnerable groups, including "including community carers, people in mental health facilities and immigration detention, the homeless and prisoners", whose jabs will be left to local authorities. 

The 80 percent figure also leaves out children under 12, meaning even if the target was reached only 64 percent of Aussies will be protected - far below the likely figure required for herd immunity, considering Delta is much better at infecting children than previous strains. 

In other words, don't hold out hope of booking a quarantine-free trip across the ditch anytime soon. 

"It may not be possible until both countries have achieved very high levels of vaccination," said Dr Hendy, picking that won't be until "much later this year".