COVID-19: Cook Islands' travel bubble talks resumed, making 'good progress' - Jacinda Ardern

Talks with the Cook Islands regarding a two-way air bridge between New Zealand and the Pacific nation have resumed, says Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and the negotiations are making "good progress".

The possibility of Kiwis taking off for a tropical holiday this Christmas is also "not out of the question", Ardern revealed to Magic Talk's Road to the Election on Sunday morning.

The Prime Minister reiterated that Auckland's resurgence of community transmission in August had effectively put an end to the prospect of a Cook Islands' travel bubble.

"It was essentially the resurgence, so the fact that we had more cases in Auckland put on hold the work we were doing primarily with the Cook Islands," she told Road to the Election host Mitch McCann.

Yet the last new community case connected to the cluster was recorded on September 25 - and the woman, a household contact of a previously confirmed case, had already been self-isolating.

New Zealand has continued to report new cases of COVID-19 over the past week, but all infections were detected in new arrivals staying at managed isolation facilities.

Ardern said she spoke to Cook Islands' Prime Minister Mark Brown - who succeeded Henry Puna on October 1 - a couple of days ago to "check-in" and resume work on the travel bubble.

She confirmed that no other Pacific nations have expressed an interest in opening their borders to New Zealanders at this time.

"They're keeping their [boundaries] pretty tight," she said. "There is [a] concern because, of course, they are COVID-free - and any COVID coming into Pacific countries would be particularly devastating. 

"So it's not just about whether we want to open, but is also of course whether the Islands do too - and at the moment, the work is being done with the Cooks, because they're open to it."

The PM said no other Pacific nations have expressed an interest in opening their borders to New Zealanders, as it may threaten their COVID-free status.
The PM said no other Pacific nations have expressed an interest in opening their borders to New Zealanders, as it may threaten their COVID-free status. Photo credit: Getty

The Prime Minister also addressed the announcement that Australia will open a one-way air bridge with New Zealand, allowing Kiwis to travel to New South Wales and the Northern Territory without the need to quarantine on arrival.

Queenstown Mayor Jim Boult has been particularly critical of the plan, noting that the prospect of international travel may draw Kiwis away from domestic tourism - meaning much-needed money for the sector will be spent in Australia.

Yet Ardern flatly rejected the suggestion, reiterating that New Zealanders will still need to quarantine for two weeks upon their return - a requirement that will factor heavily in people's decisions.

"Of course New Zealanders would be weighing up the fact that they'd have to quarantine on return from any potential travel, and would also need to pay for it," Ardern said.

As outlined in the COVID-19 Public Health Response Amendment Bill, single returnees will be charged $3100 for their mandatory 14-day stay in a managed isolation facility. Each additional adult sharing the room will be charged $950, and each additional child (aged three to 17) will cost a further $475.

Returning citizens and residents are liable for a charge if they are currently overseas and return to New Zealand for less than 90 days, or if they leave the country after the regulations came into effect (August 11) and return at a later date.

Ardern reiterated the trans-Tasman air bridge will remain one-way until there is greater assurance that Australian states - including New South Wales - are free of community transmission. The Government is operating on certain criteria, such as a state being free of community cases for at least 28 days. 

"This is just one of a handful of other criteria that we're looking at," Ardern said. "It's fair to say this hotspot approach will speed things up more so than the whole-of-country approach, otherwise we're also waiting for Victoria."

The air bridge would also not become two-way until trans-Tasman flights consist solely of Australian travellers, Ardern said. Flights from across the ditch are currently "mixed", meaning passengers from other parts of the world are on-board - increasing the risk that a traveller could be carrying COVID-19.

Ardern also suggested that "green lanes" would need to be implemented at Australian airports - areas that are "completely free of travellers mixing".

"What this does present is an opportunity to get some of those logistical issues sorted, while we wait for New South Wales to be free of community transmission - and then we'll be better placed to open up on the other side."