Coronavirus: What a trans-Tasman bubble could look like

Plans for a so-called Trans-Tasman bubble could be in place by the end of the month, with temperature checks and masks considered to re-open the border with Australia again.

Airports and airlines are hoping to test new safety measures in the next few weeks.

Many New Zealanders are desperate for the borders to open. For families stuck either side of the Tasman, video calls are as close as connection gets. 

Hannah Ellison is a Kiwi living in Sydney -her plans to visit home are now on hold. It means much of her family still hasn't met her husband after they married three months ago.

"We planned the party, it was scheduled a week after your lockdown started, and then the travel ban got put in place," she told Newshub Nation.

Air New Zealand now flies between Sydney and Auckland just three times every week. The international terminal is eerie and empty. More than 100 flights a day was once normal, but today there are only four.

What was once a short flight's now a marathon journey with a 14-day quarantine either side, leaving Kiwi families stranded, separated and searching for a sign of when it will end.

Hope is now pinned on a trans-Tasman bubble. And behind the scenes of deserted airports, the industry is making plans. Auckland Airport's CEO Adrian Littlewood is helping spearhead an effort to reopen borders as soon as it's safe.

"New Zealand and Australia have a great opportunity to really set some potential standards for travel restarting around the world."  

Eighteen organisations are trying to solve it as part of the Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum's high powered Trans-Tasman Safe Border Group. It brings together the Government, Air New Zealand, Qantas and the three biggest airports on each side of the ditch.

They met for the first time together on Tuesday tasked with designing a new kind of travel. 

Littlewood says the flying experience has to change to allow for flights between New Zealand and Australia without putting travellers into quarantine.

"To prototype what a future border process might look like, so we can then test that to ensure that meets both airport and aviation requirements, as well as new health requirements, as we understand what they might be."

The exact safety measures are still in development, but temperature checks are being considered and are already in place at airports overseas. 

Margy Osmond, Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum Tourism co-chair, says a plan could be ready in the next few weeks.

"A working strategy by the beginning of June - and the plan with this is, although we know that it would take Governments longer than that to make a decision about opening the borders, we need to be able show them the industry is ready."

It can't come soon enough for New Zealand tourism, which has ground to a halt in the past two months. At Cardrona Alpine Resort near Queenstown they're preparing for a winter season without a huge part of their regular crowd.

"That Australian market is a big portion of half of our business, so without that we're going to see around about 50 percent of what we'd normally see here this winter," general manager Bridget Legnavsky told Newshub Nation. 

The hope is that Kiwis will flock to the mountains, and $400m from this week's Budget will be spent encouraging domestic travel to resume. But many will need Australian tourists for business this season to really rebound, including Legnavsky.

"The difference between having just a domestic market and having an Australia New Zealand bubble is going to be about 30 or 40 percent of our revenue, so it's going to be important to us to try and get this."

It's even more important to the Pacific where tourism makes economies tick. Normally pristine Treasure Island Fiji is bustling with families at this time of year. Now the beach and resort lie empty with 120 staff unable to work.

"Right now we're sitting on zero occupancy. There's no one to serve right now," says events coordinator Lavenia Nakala.

"Our only wish now is for the borders to be reopened again, and operations here in the tourism industry in Fiji are back to normal."

Fiji has lobbied New Zealand and Australia to be part of the trans-Tasman Bubble. Their last confirmed COVID-19 case was three weeks ago, and other Pacific nations haven't had one at all.

Littlewood says the focus is getting systems in place first. 

"We can test and trial a new process working with Australia and see if that can work for both countries - naturally that can give us some clues as to what might work for other countries, and yes, the Pacific Islands have come up."

But first we have to beat the virus. Slowly Australia is lifting restrictions. New cases there have fallen sharply to around a dozen every day.

But infectious diseases specialist Professor Nick Wilson says both countries need elimination. And so far we haven't defined what it is.

"It would probably be something like a 28-day period - or maybe a bit longer - in which no new cases had emerged, and the definition would probably exclude detected arriving travellers with the infection, because they can be properly managed in isolation and so wouldn't represent any threat." 

Prof Wilson says once we agree to a definition, achieving elimination could be close behind. 

"It may only be a matter of a few weeks before those countries start to see zero cases, if the clock started ticking in a few weeks' time for that 28 day period, it could conceivably be within two months."

In the meantime, airports and airlines are racing to be ready for when the Government acts.

"Our task is to put something forward something credible they can test, and then it's about political will on both sides of the Tasman," says Littlewood. 

And for many, the sooner the better - to bring countries and families together again.