Cook Islands travel bubble expected 'before the end of the year' – Jacinda Ardern

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced a Cook Islands travel bubble is expected to be in place soon, but with a loose timeframe of "before the end of the year".

The Prime Minister confirmed on Monday that Cabinet had considered draft text being worked on via officials which will become the basis of an agreement for quarantine-free travel between the Cook Islands and New Zealand.

"That draft text is near conclusion," Ardern told reporters. "The next phase will be the verification phase; that is where we have officials on both sides who undertake work on the ground to assure ourselves that we're meeting the expectations on both sides."

Ardern said the Government's expectation is that there will be travel between officials undertaking that verification work within about the next 10 days.

She said the third phase will be the finalising of details. The Government will get advice form the Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield and the Government will then confirm with the Cook Islands administration if travel can go ahead.

"Whilst we haven't put a timeframe around the reopening at this stage, our expectation is that it would be in place before the end of the year," Ardern said.

"We haven't wanted to give dates beyond that while we're still undertaking that verification work and that's on both sides - both for the Cook Islands and for New Zealand."

Auckland Airport and Wellington Airport have said they will be ready to cope with opening up travel bubbles by dividing arrivals into different groups. Ardern said it will be important to ensure the maritime border is also safe.

"One thing to keep in mind, there's been a lot focus on the aviation side of the border - making sure that we have separation at any of the airports that would be utilised, separate transit, and so on," she said. 

"Another factor is the maritime border. Both New Zealand and the Cook Islands do have people coming and going through either pleasure crafts or through cargo. We do need to assure both sides that the rigor that we apply from the aviation side is being applied at the maritime border as well."

Who would be allowed to travel?

Ardern said those who are legally able to be in New Zealand would be eligible to utilise the travel bubble, but beyond New Zealand passport holders it would be a matter of meeting the Cook Islands visa requirements. 

The Cook Islands have been calling out for a travel bubble for months. 

Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna wanted it established as soon as New Zealand entered alert level 1, which was back in June. The islands are part of the New Zealand realm and are heavily reliant upon Kiwi tourists. 

"That's why I think these progress updates are so important," Ardern said. "I expect that we'll be getting another update in the next two weeks on progress... We are giving those milestones just to keep people up-to-date with the work that's being done.

"It is not a simple exercise and it is one where we are exercising that caution. The last thing anyone wants is to reopen travel only to have it closed down because it hasn't been done properly."

The Government is exploring health checks at the border as part of quarantine-free travel.

"The whole point of establishing this regime is the assurance that both the Cook Islands and New Zealand are considered to be COVID-free, but that doesn't mean we won't have extra stages of assurance."

What about other Pacific Island nations?

Despite Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama praising Fiji and New Zealand as "among the only countries on Earth to go 100 days or more" without COVID-19 community transmission, Ardern said she is only focussed on realm countries for now.

"At this stage we are entirely focussed on realm countries. That includes the Cook Islands and Niue, Tokelau being in a different set of circumstances as the only access route is via Samoa," she said.

"Niue at present is still waiting for them to be ready. At this stage we are progressing with the Cooks but we have not looked beyond that. We've prioritised the realm because of our special relationship and because these are New Zealand passport holders."

Ardern said she's aware a travel bubble could take tourism away from New Zealand but she said that cannot be the basis of a decision because people with New Zealand passports have the right to enter the country. 

The Prime Minister said the Government is still undertaking work for a trans-Tasman arrangement but "obviously that is going to be some time off" because of recent community outbreaks of the virus.