COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins 'can't guarantee' trans-Tasman travel bubble will increase MIQ availability

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins "can't guarantee" a trans-Tasman bubble will increase MIQ availability despite travellers from Australia making up about 40 percent of spaces. 

Speculation is growing that the Government is tipped to announce plans for a trans-Tasman bubble in the coming weeks, which Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said on Wednesday could "potentially" free-up 40 percent of space in managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ). 

There are just 32 MIQ facilities in operation and the booking system currently shows spaces are extremely limited until July, so if travellers from Australia no longer needed to go through the facilities it would free up lots of space. 

But Hipkins poured cold water on the prospect on Thursday, saying he cannot guarantee a trans-Tasman travel bubble would translate to space in MIQ for travellers from other places. 

"I certainly wouldn't guarantee at this point that 30 to 40 percent of rooms currently occupied by trans-Tasman would automatically be available for travellers from other areas," Hipkins said on his way into Parliament. 

"We will have to look at the risk profile, for example, of a higher risk cohort of passengers coming in. Australia's very low-risk at the moment. That will be something we have to think through - how we allocate rooms and so on and that may have some impact on the overall allocation of rooms.

"Trans-Tasman will increase the number of rooms available for people coming from elsewhere but it won't necessarily be a one-for-one swap."

Hipkins pushed back on the suggestion travellers from high-risk countries shouldn't pose a risk to New Zealand if our MIQ facilities are running properly. 

"The higher the concentration of risk you're dealing with then obviously the higher the risk is going to be overall and we're trying to keep the risk in our MIQ facilities very low," he said. 

"If you're looking at pre-departure testing for example, that's had a potential positive impact, day zero and day one testing has also had a positive impact - but the higher the risk of the passenger cohort, the higher the risk, so we will think about that. 

"We just can't guarantee that it's going to be an exact one-for-one swap."

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she won't provides dates on a trans-Tasman bubble at this stage because she doesn’t want there to be "moving goal posts".

"We are working very hard to make sure we give people as much certainty as possible and we'd like to see it soon," she told reporters in Auckland. 

A travel bubble would open up quarantine-free travel within New Zealand and Australia, but each country would retain the right to halt such travel as it sees fit. 

Airports would be divided into 'red zones'  for travellers from countries where COVID-19 is prevalent  and 'green zones' where COVID-19 is more or less under control. Transit passengers would have to catch separate flights. 

It's understood Australia cooled on the idea of having a joint set of rules for a trans-Tasman bubble, which is what New Zealand has been working towards. Officials had concluded 11 rounds of talks with Australia on this proposed model. 

Speculation is growing of a trans-Tasman travel bubble.
Speculation is growing of a trans-Tasman travel bubble. Photo credit: Getty

But things got complicated when Australian states started opening up quarantine-free travel New Zealanders on their own, rather than nationwide. 

Then in January, Australia suddenly shut off quarantine-free travel for New Zealanders in the wake of the Northland community case, which angered Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the time because it left Kiwis stranded. 

The following month it's understood Australia became more favourable towards that approach - that each country should have the right to suspend travel as they see fit.

"Obviously our position changed in February when Australia's position changed and that meant that there was some further intensive work required to recalibrate to a different environment," Hipkins said. "But we've always been clear we want to open this up as soon as we're able to."

Hipkins said Kiwi travellers to Australia will need to accept their insurance is unlikely to cover being stranded because of COVID-19 cancellations, so "they will have to build that into their thinking". 

"New Zealanders who travel to Australia will be resuming a degree of risk that if the green zone was to close at short notice, they may have to shelter in place for a period of time. That's a difference to what we were earlier discussing which was more of a joint decision-making framework."

Hipkins said other things to work through include making sure everyone coming into New Zealand downloads the COVID Tracer app and there's a record of travellers' contact details. 

"Auckland Airport will still be the main hub for international travel. They'll keep passengers physically separate but they need a bit of time to do that. The airport needs less time than the airlines. One of the challenges for the airlines is that they've got to scale back up again."