Kiwis to return to New Zealand if COVID-19 detected in Cook Islands, Jacinda Ardern says

Kiwis holidaying in the Cook Islands can return to New Zealand if COVID-19 emerges there rather than being made to shelter in place, Jacinda Ardern says.

A quarantine-free travel bubble between New Zealand and the Cook Islands opened on Monday, with the first flight from Aotearoa taking off on Tuesday. 

The Prime Minister says the "world-leading" two-way travel arrangement is only possible because of New Zealand's successful COVID-19 management and a huge amount of work has gone into ensuring the bubble is safe. 

While the Cook Islands hasn't recorded any cases of COVID-19 and New Zealand doesn't currently have any community infections, there's always the chance of a breach at the border as we have seen multiple times over the last year.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Ardern said if a case is detected in the Cooks, it "almost certainly" originated in New Zealand. That's because the Cook Islands' borders are closed to almost everyone other than those who have been in New Zealand for 14 full days. 

"That's why we've been really cautious in the reopening, because we know ultimately it will be our responsibility to help support the Cooks in any response," she said.

So what would happen if a case pops up in the Cooks?

In the case of New Zealand's trans-Tasman bubble, if a case emerges with an unknown source, flights can be paused, requiring Kiwis to shelter in place. But Ardern says it's different with this new arrangement. 

"We'll be needing to provide support to their system, and it's likely the outbreak will be in New Zealand," she said.

"We don't have the same protocols around Australia where we tell people to shelter in place. It may well be the case that we will bring people back to New Zealand in order to not put too much pressure on the system in the Cooks."

Ardern said holiday goers may need to work with their airlines to bring their return-trip arrangements forward. 

"But unlike Australia, the situation would be that if there were a case, it would have been because we have a case in New Zealand and all the consequences from that. It doesn't put New Zealand at risk to then bring New Zealanders home."

Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown told The AM Show on Tuesday morning the new bubble was really important for the islands' economy. 

"We have a GDP of about half a billion dollars a year, we would say 20 percent of that has been knocked off in the last year from the loss of income from tourism," he said.

"So it's a big chunk… compared to New Zealand's loss over the same period is about 2 percent. For us the recovery, which is what we are now looking at… is critical but it's going to be a long haul - it's going to take two to three years to get back to pre-COVID levels."

For someone to be eligible to travel between New Zealand and the Cooks without quarantine, travellers must have been in either for at least 14 days before travel. That means anyone wanting to travel between Australia and the Cook Islands would need to spend at least 14 days in New Zealand in the middle.

People shouldn't travel if they are unwell, waiting for a COVID-19 test or have been in contact with someone suspected to have COVID-19.