COVID-19: Jacinda Ardern hints at more quarantine-free bubbles, allowing vaccinated travellers into New Zealand

Travellers vaccinated against COVID-19 could soon be allowed into New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has hinted in a speech to the business community. 

In a pre-Budget speech in Auckland on Thursday, Ardern also hinted at further quarantine-free travel opportunities with other nations, beyond Australia and the Cook Islands. 

"Firstly, let me say from the outset, that while the hard work of many has meant our goods and services have remained mobile in the last 12 months, our goal now is to move towards reconnecting our people to the world," Ardern said. 

"As a Government, we see it as incumbent on us to do this in a way that maintains the position we have - an environment where we are free from COVID - because we don't yet have the individual armoury to protect ourselves from the disease.

"That means that for the time being, our borders remain our barricade against COVID-19... But there are ways we can retain our elimination strategy whilst starting to rebuild contact with the world."

Trans-Tasman quarantine-free travel has been underway since April 19, a world first in the COVID-19 pandemic, and from Monday, May 17, quarantine-free travel will commence between the Cook Islands and New Zealand. 

Since the trans-Tasman bubble opened, more than 70,000 people have landed in New Zealand from Australia. Over 57,000 have travelled the other way.

"Niue is the natural next addition. Beyond that we are relatively open-minded, and I do anticipate there will be other countries we can explore opportunities with," Ardern said. 

"But as you can see from the trans-Tasman bubble, expanding the team of 5 million to a team of 30 million is not without risk and complication, and the bar we've set for whom we can safety operate such an arrangement with is high." 

Ardern said the question is: Will people who've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in other countries be able to come to New Zealand if we haven't finished our vaccine roll out?

"The answer is - possibly. But there are two things we need to consider," she said. "Firstly, we will be relying heavily on emerging evidence about how effective vaccines are in preventing not just symptoms of the disease, but transmission between vaccinated individuals."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivered a pre-Budget speech to the business community.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivered a pre-Budget speech to the business community. Photo credit: Newshub

Ardern said early data is "promising". 

"A recent study in the UK found that the likelihood of household transmission was halved where an infected person had been vaccinated, on top of the vaccine being 90 percent effective at stopping infection in the first place.

"But as we have seen, no vaccine is fail-safe. We have had our own recent example of a fully vaccinated border worker contracting COVID-19."

Ardern said the second consideration alongside vaccine efficacy is the question of COVID variants.

She said the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is being rolled out in New Zealand, is "holding up well", but "our reopening plan will need the flexibility to continue highlighting and responding rapidly to countries where variants emerge that might pose a risk to the immunity we've built up in New Zealand, or are working to build up". 

The vaccine rollout in New Zealand is on track, but it's been criticised as falling behind on a global scale. Ardern has argued our need is less significant and therefore it makes sense for COVID-stricken countries to get vaccines first. 

In the last week alone, almost 80,000 people were vaccinated in New Zealand. A total of 120,000 people have received their second dose, making them fully vaccinated - that's 2.4 percent of the population. The general public will start getting jabs from July. 

Ardern couldn't give any definitive answers on when some of this work will land, but she promised the Government will keep an open mind, listen to the science, and prepare us for the range of different opportunities that may arise.

But Ardern is planning to undertake her first international travel since the pandemic began. She will lead a trade and promotional delegation to Australia in July. 

Meanwhile next month, Trade Minister Damien O'Connor will travel to London and Brussels to progress negotiations for New Zealand's free trade agreements with the UK and EU. O'Connor will undertake 14 days of managed isolation upon return.

Ardern also plans to lead delegations into Europe, the United States, China and the wider Asia-Pacific, when borders start to reopen.