COVID-19: Jacinda Ardern to join Scott Morrison and Australian leaders to discuss trans-Tasman 'bubble'

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is set to join a meeting with Australian state leaders and her counterpart Scott Morrison to discuss the prospect of a trans-Tasman travel 'bubble'. 

The discussions will take place on Tuesday and it will be a videoconference call, with Ardern joining Australia's national Cabinet which comprises the PM and all state and territory premiers and chief ministers.

"One of the aspects of our plan to get New Zealand moving is work on the trans-Tasman 'bubble'," the Prime Minister told reporters at her Monday post-Cabinet press conference.

"It is fair to say such a meeting is without precedent and highlights both what's happened at a state level in Australia and also the mutual importance of our two countries and our economies to each other," Ardern said. 

"Both our countries' strong protocols in fighting the virus place us in the enviable position of being able to plan the next stage of our economic rebuild  and to include trans-Tasman engagement in our strategy."

Ardern warned Kiwis not to get too excited, saying it's unlikely to happen in a couple of weeks' time, but she said both nations are keen on the prospect. The idea is to have travel between Australia and New Zealand without the current two-week quarantine. 

The idea was cooked up by Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters, who last week told Australian media he's keen to kick-start travel between the two countries to boost tourism and because both nations appear to be keeping the virus under control.

Morrison told reporters last week that "if there's any country in the world with whom we can reconnect with first, undoubtedly that's New Zealand". 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty

The Ministry of Health reported no new cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand for the first time on Monday, and the Government is expected to announce next week if the country is ready to shift out of alert level 3.

New Zealand's total number of COVID-19 cases remains at 1487 with a death toll of 20, compared to Australia's more than 6800 cases and 95 deaths.

It's in stark contrast to the United States where more than a million people have contracted the virus, with the death toll reaching more than 68,000.

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said New Zealand officials are "in constant contact with our Australian counterparts". 

But for a trans-Tasman 'bubble' to be created, he said they would need to agree on "how we are testing for, identifying and isolating cases and contacts". 

The two nations would also need to agree on "the ability to exchange information smoothly" to enable contact tracing.

"I think we would need to be confident in each other's capabilities in that regard," he added, explaining how New Zealand has worked closely with Australia on aspects such as border controls and case definitions. 

"I'm confident we could continue that to support a trans-Tasman 'bubble' arrangement if that's what the governments agree."

Kiwis could soon be able to  travel to Australia.
Kiwis could soon be able to travel to Australia. Photo credit: Getty

Dr Bloomfield said the Ministry of Health has been preparing advice for Ardern for the discussions with Morrison and other state leaders.

It's also expected that Australia's contact tracing app CovidSafe will be part of Ardern's discussions. The app has been downloaded by about 4 million people, Australian media is reporting. 

There are plans for an app to be launched in New Zealand, similar to Singapore's contact tracing app TraceTogether, described as a supplementary tool to help trace the recent contacts of people with COVID-19.

Mobile phones that have the app installed exchange short-distance Bluetooth signals when app users are near each other, and the records of those encounters - including the duration - are stored on the device for 21 days.

Dr Bloomfield said the Ministry of Health is finalising advice for Cabinet about the app for New Zealand, and Cabinet will then decide on how it will be used and when it should be made available.

He said we do not need an app to shift into alert level 2 - but it could be helpful.

"It's quite clear from our experience here and even if we look at other countries that the mainstay of being able to support a move to ease restrictions is having that really good core contact tracing system in place which we've been working hard to strengthen.

"An app may play a role in supporting that but it will be in addition to that core capacity... Not having an app won't be a constraint."