Jacinda Ardern's 'disappointment' at Australia's decision to close border over Northland COVID-19 case

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has expressed "disappointment" over Australia's decision to close its border to New Zealand in the wake of the COVID-19 case in Northland. 

Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt announced on Monday that the country's one-way travel bubble with New Zealand has been suspended for at least 72 hours out of an "abundance of caution" following the discovery of the South African COVID-19 variant in the community.

Ardern confirmed on Monday that her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison had informed her about the move, and she assured him that she has confidence in the Government's COVID-19 systems and processes.  

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Ardern added that she had "certainly expressed disappointment" to Morrison about the decision to close the border. 

"I conveyed the confidence that we have in our systems but also just acknowledged that if we are to enter into a trans-Tasman bubble, we will need to be able to give people confidence that we won't see closures at the borders that happen with very short notice, over incidents that we believe can be well-managed domestically."

The Ministry of Health confirmed on Tuesday that the Northland woman who had contracted the virus - likely via transmission during her stay in managed isolation - had not spread it to anyone else, at least according to the latest testing data. 

"We see the impacts of that decision on travellers. We need to have some confidence for our trans-Tasman travel arrangement that we won't see decisions that necessarily impact people when it may not be necessary," Ardern said. 

"Ultimately, it is a decision for Australia, and I need to acknowledge that. But I certainly shared my view that this was a situation that was well under control, that we have had experiences in New Zealand with these situations in the past, and that actually if we're going to run a trans-Tasman bubble arrangement we need to be able to manage situations like that."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty

Ardern announced in December that a travel bubble with Australia could be in place from the first quarter of 2021, and she confirmed on Tuesday that the Government is still working towards it. 

"We are continuing to pursue it but what we will need to establish is a way that we can have that arrangement but without seeing such disruption over events that may happen from time to time. But it does look increasingly difficult at a country-by-country level. We haven't ruled out the possibility of state-by-state."

Ardern pointed to the recent removal of mandatory quarantine for Cook Islands arrivals into New Zealand as evidence of the Government's commitment to travel bubbles. 

"What we've demonstrated with the Cook Islands is an ability to progress these arrangements where on both sides we've got a pretty common approach to COVID. One of the challenges is that not every [Australian] state has the same approach as New Zealand and so that difference in the way states are managing... it does add a layer of complication."

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Photo credit: Getty

Ardern also announced on Tuesday that the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines are expected to be approved by New Zealand's medicine regulator Medsafe by next week, with plans to vaccinate frontline staff before the end of March and the general population in the second half of the year. 

But don't expect that to change travel restrictions anytime soon. 

"Immunising our border staff will provide a line of defence for them personally, but may not necessarily stop lines of transmission, which is why those controls will still be so necessary," Ardern said. 

"New Zealand will only truly feel like it is returned to normal when there is a certain level of normality in the rest of the world too. Given the risks in the world around us and the uncertainty of the global roll-out of a vaccine, we can expect our borders to be impacted for much of this year.

"For travel to restart, we need one of two things: we either need the confidence that being vaccinated means you don't pass COVID-19 on to others - and we don't know that yet - or we need enough of our population to be vaccinated and protected that people can safely re-enter New Zealand. Both possibilities will take some time. 

"In the meantime we will continue to pursue travel bubbles with Australia and the Pacific but the rest of the world simply poses too greater risk to our health and our economy to risk it at this stage."