Coronavirus: Finance Minister Grant Robertson defends lack of travel bubbles

The Finance Minister is defending the lack of travel arrangements with other COVID-19-free nations amid claims the Government is unreasonably restricting Kiwis' rights to travel.  

There are no known cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand and there have been calls for the Government to establish a travel bubble with the Cook Islands where there is also no COVID-19 - but the border remains closed. 

"Given there are no cases of COVID-19 in the Cook Islands, Tokelau and Niue, and minimal cases in Australia, what's the hold up?" asked ACT leader David Seymour on Thursday. 

Finance Minister Grant Robertson says work is ongoing to establish travel bubbles with Australia and the Pacific, and he's pushing back against claims the Government is being too careful. 

"I don't think we're being too precious," Robertson told Magic Talk. "I think the caution we've exercised around our border and the restrictions that we put in place have been a big part of the success in controlling the virus." 

He said New Zealand is in a "privileged position" to even be considering opening up the border to some countries when nations like the United States are recording thousands of new cases every day. 

"There is a very active work programme underway to not just look at the trans-Tasman bubble or a Pacific bubble but actually set criteria that could then be applied to any country," Robertson said. 

"Obviously, we're more advanced in our discussions with Australia than our thinking around the Pacific, but actually our job as a Government is to say 'well, what would be the criteria for us to loosen those restrictions for a range of countries?'"

Robertson acknowledged the Government has obligations to the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau - countries part of the realm of New Zealand, for whom many consider New Zealand home and might want to come back.   

"We have to think about that, as well as the possibility of opening up those countries some tourism opportunities," he said. "We are getting on with the work but we are doing it safely because actually it is those border restrictions that have allowed us to get on top of the virus.

"We do have the process for exemptions to be granted and a number of them have been, like famously the Avatar crew, but also other industries and we again are developing the criteria to make that as efficient a process as possible."

New Zealand's economy is predicted to shrink by 8.9 percent or 10 percent if there is a second-wave of COVID-19, according to a new OECD report.  

Robertson said businesses that are still struggling can apply for the second tranche of the wage subsidy scheme, which is available for companies that can demonstrate a 40 percent drop in revenue. 

He said an estimated 230,000 companies will take it up, and on Wednesday 14,000 out of 28,000 applications had been processed by the Ministry of Social Development. 

"There's definitely still a need for this and it's available for the next eight weeks for those companies that have done it really tough."

Seymour said New Zealanders need certainty from the Government and a clear plan for restarting the economy, because "borrowing billions and hoping for a vaccine won't cut it". 

He said the Government should consider adopting New Zealand business Datamine's ëlarm technology, an app the company claims can detect a COVID-19 infection before you start to feel sick.l

"A person wishing to enter New Zealand from Australia and the Pacific Islands could submit the output of their device for the preceding days and undertake to continue to do so for several days after entering," Seymour suggested. 

"A negative result would all but guarantee the person was not infected. A positive result would allow a person to be rapidly isolated." 

He said the technology would allow people to be fast-tracked through quarantine, allowing businesses to get access to the outside world and back to normal faster. 

Robertson said he "absolutely understands" the desire to see travel restrictions loosened. 

He said Kiwis have "a great opportunity to see our own country" in the meantime, and that the Government will move as "quickly and as safely as we can towards loosening those border restrictions".