Top surgeon says Kiwis 'more at risk of being hit by falling coconut' than COVID-19

A Kiwi-Rarotongan surgeon says the border between New Zealand and the Cook Islands should reopen fully to New Zealand now, as there's more chance of being hit by a coconut than of catching COVID-19 there.

General surgeon John Dunn, who works at Auckland EndoscopyJohn Dunn believes claims the Cooks are not prepared amount to a smokescreen, and says the deliberations on reinstating travel there simply don't make sense. 

"There is no risk of getting coronavirus if you go there," Dr Dunn said. "There's zero risk. You're at greater risk of being hit by a fallen coconut than COVID.

"It's as safe as going to Wellington or going to Queenstown or going to Waiheke Island. It should be a domestic destination." 

On the streets of Auckland, many we spoke to said opening travel to the COVID-free Cook Islands was a no-brainer.

"If they're free and they have got barriers against people from elsewhere then yes, we should be opening up those borders," says local Colin Wise. 

"If we don't support our neighbouring countries, then who else will?" another asked.

Asked exactly why we wouldn't open to the Cooks, the Prime Minister said our borders are our biggest defence against the virus. 

"Any decisions there are going to be very cautious," Jacinda Ardern said.

In terms of being cautious, Australia remains a problem. It had seven new cases overnight, and has 424 active ones. 

The preference has been Australia first - but Ardern isn't ruling out the Pacific taking precedence. 

"We haven't, of course, set down timelines for Australia or indeed the Pacific - but we are working in earnest to get New Zealand ready," she said.

Her deputy Winston Peters cited issues with personal protective equipment (PPE) and border security in the Cooks - but Dr Dunn doesn't buy it.

"It's a smokescreen. I don't think that's relevant," he said.

Dr Dunn says as Pacific economies fail, so too do health systems. He has several gallbladder surgeries to complete in Rarotonga, but like cardiologists and ophthalmologists, he can't get there.

John Dunn, who’s been operating and training staff in the Cook Islands for 15 years, is calling on the New Zealand Government to show kindness, saying the Cooks’ economy is in "free fall". 

Kiwi tourists spent around $225 million in the Cooks in 2018, but it's important to factor in what Cook Islanders spent hosting visitors.

$125 million went on direct imports from New Zealand, including fuel, food and machinery; $70 million on freight for imports and airfares, the majority of which is spent in New Zealand; and $39 million on telecommunications and insurance.

"Fruits and vegetables, packaged and processed foods, machinery. We even sue each other using New Zealand lawyers. Everything is done out of New Zealand," resort operator Tata Crocombe said.

"We are New Zealand citizens. Last time I checked there wasn't a second class of New Zealand citizen. But we are being treated as second-class citizens. 

"It's just outrageous."

But some we spoke to emphasised the importance of spending local..

"I'm going to sit on the fence with this one with Auntie Jacinda," Francis Siaosi said.

But sitting on the fence is not what Cook Islanders want Aunty Jacinda to do - they need medicine in the form of tourism and now.

The Prime Minister's office has told Newshub there is no travel bubble between Cook Islands and New Zealand for now after a news report on Thursday night suggested all Kiwis could open to the Pacific nation as soon as next week.

It indicated Kiwis would be able to fly to the Cook Islands for holidays from June 19, but would have to quarantine when they return to New Zealand.

However the Prime Minister's office says that's premature, and New Zealand's border settings will remain the same for the time being - although conversations around the border are ongoing.

In any event, Cook Islanders have been calling for free travel between the two nations, rather than travel that would require Kiwis to quarantine.

Six days ago, Cook Islands PM Henry Puna told Newshub repatriation flights for Cook islanders who had been stuck in NZ during lockdown would begin on June 19.