Coronavirus: 'Several years' before international travel back to normal, even with open borders - Chris Hipkins

The minister responsible for New Zealand's COVID-19 response says it could take years for global travel to return to the level it was before the pandemic struck, even if the borders are open. 

It's been exactly one year since the first - and so far only - nationwide level 4 lockdown to stop the spread of the virus, which has so far killed at least 2.7 million people worldwide. 

About a week before that New Zealand shut its borders to all but non-residents, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying visitors weren't self-isolating on arrival. At the time, all the confirmed cases in New Zealand had been picked up overseas. 

"It was starting to become pretty obvious that it was serious from late January through early February," COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told The AM Show on Thursday. At the time his major role was being Minister of Education. 

"I remember when we made the decision in early February to restrict movement between New Zealand and China - that seemed like a monumental decision, yet only weeks later we were making the decision to lock the country down and effectively close the border to everybody. Things moved very, very fast."

The border has remained shut since then to all but "critical" workers, putting great economic strain on places like Queenstown, which are highly dependent on international tourism. 

There have been growing calls for a travel bubble with Australia - previous attempts have been stymied by new outbreaks, and Hipkins earlier this month said a deal close to being struck at the start of February was suddenly canned by Australia

Asked whether there was a roadmap to opening the borders again, Hipkins said it was "emerging" but wasn't clear just yet. 

"A roadmap is emerging, but I wouldn't say it's a clear one. Vaccines are certainly going to play a significant role in that... I don't think it's going to be a sudden wake up one moment and the world returns back to normal. I think we're going to see a series of progressive changes over the course of the latter part of this year,  early into the new year.

"It's going to be some time before the world starts to look more like what it did before COVID-19. Global movement of people probably won't get back to those levels again for several years, even once border restrictions are removed. There will be some constraints there - the airlines for example have grounded huge proportions of their fleets. All of those things are going to take some time to work through." 

No huge regrets

While New Zealand's response to COVID-19 has been hailed worldwide as one of the world's best - particularly compared to other 'Western' countries - it hasn't been without its mistakes. Hipkins, who took responsibility for the response in November with the creation of a separate ministerial role, said there haven't been any "huge regrets".

"As you go along, there are always things that you can learn from. One of the key things for me has always been to be open when things haven't gone according to plan. There have been some examples of that. 

"In the early days of our managed isolation operations there were a few bumps in the road there - everybody knows those, people jumping the fence and so on. The key thing was to get on and fix those as quickly as we could. I look back with a good degree of pride over what we've been able to achieve as a country. 

"When you look back to the uncertainty we faced in those early days, compare how New Zealand's fared to the rest of the world, I think we made some good calls back then. But actually more importantly, New Zealanders recognised the risk and were willing to make the sacrifices that were needed to make sure that we didn't end up like the rest of the world."

Chris Hipkins and a plane
Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Getty/Air NZ/Boeing

Hipkins credited then-Health Minister David Clark with much of the success. Dr Clark lost his job after a series of mistakes, including leaving his house during the level 4 lockdown and a disastrous press conference where he appeared to blame a quarantine outbreak on the wildly popular Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield. He was temporarily replaced by Hipkins.

"David Clark I think did a really, really good job in those early days of COVID-19. He was working from home in Dunedin, and that was difficult. Most ministers were working from home. I was Minister of Education , trying to keep the education system going and we managed to do that successfully. I was doing that from home. We were working from home the same as everybody else was. 

"I do think that David Clark, I hope history will reflect on his contribution a little more kindly than perhaps the way he departed from the role." 

Hipkins made similar comments about his "good friend" Dr Clark in December.