COVID-19 trans-Tasman bubble: DHB staff hesitant over Australian trips

Auckland DHB has advised all staff it will not approve business travel - except for critical reasons.
Auckland DHB has advised all staff it will not approve business travel - except for critical reasons. Photo credit: Getty

By Amy Williams and Carmina Blewett for RNZ

Doctors at Auckland Hospital have been told they cannot fly to Australia for business or continuing education when the bubble opens later this month.

Auckland DHB has advised all staff it will not approve business travel - except for critical reasons - and strongly discourages taking holidays across the Tasman.

DHB chief executive Ailsa Claire has laid out the organisation's expectations for the upcoming trans-Tasman travel bubble.

In a memo to all staff, she said they were "taking a cautious approach".

"For now, we are not approving any overseas business or CPE (Continuing Professional Education) travel. There will be some exceptions for critical activity," said Claire.

"If you are thinking about travelling to Australia for a family reunion or a holiday please talk to your manager first. If there are community cases of Covid-19 identified in the area you have visited you may be required to isolate on your return. This could turn your two week holiday into four weeks away from work."

The Association of Salaried Medical Specialists represents doctors and healthcare workers at the country's DHBs.

Executive director Sarah Dalton said the Auckland DHB was out of line.

"If the Director-General and the Prime Minister say that it's okay then we think that's a good enough reason for someone to be able to cross the Tasman for a team meeting or professional learning and development."

She said other DHBs had contacted the association for advice.

"The DHB sort of made its own mind up on that whereas our view would be if there's good reasons for the doctor to go to the meeting or conference and all the other requirements are met then there's no reason why they shouldn't."

The association is in discussions with the Auckland DHB about its travel directive to staff.

The DHB's memo to staff states that although it would not want to stop anyone's travel plans, employees who chose to travel to Australia for a holiday will need to use annual or unpaid leave if they are required to isolate on return.

Wellington employment lawyer Barbara Buckett said employers who notified their workers the risk was theirs were putting a stake in the ground.

"It'll come down to whether you're being a fair and reasonable employer looking at the circumstances as they present themselves," she said.

"If you say they take the risk then I guess that does open pandora's box in terms of what the employer can do if you are prohibited from getting back and there's some issue about you not being back in the workplace."

Buckett said before COVID-19 the legal advice to employees would have been they were not obliged to tell their employer they were heading overseas for a holiday but now it may be a matter of good faith given the risk to their return trip.

She said it was a grey area that employers and employees should seek clarity on.

"Everybody should be clear about where the risk lies and where the onus lies to go and return so there's clarity around it before people take the leave so it's not a mess after the event."

Buckett also said an employer with business on both sides of the Tasman could not force an employee to travel to Australia.

Dalton agreed travel was more complex and risky now than before the pandemic but said workers should be able to decide for themselves.

"If someone chose to take their annual leave in Australia and then the border closed then the risk would be to that worker, but they certainly can't command people not to go, in our view, certainly not for annual leave and not for other reasons."

How other large organisations have reacted

Other large organisations are scrambling to get information to staff about what the trans-Tasman travel bubble means for them.

Auckland Council and AUT said it was too early to know, Vodafone said "conversations are underway".

Meridian Energy said it was not recommending work-related travel across the Tasman unless it was essential, but no one was required to travel for work if they were not comfortable doing so.

"If any of our team do need to travel, we've asked them to be prepared for the bubble 'bursting' while on the either side of the Tasman," a spokesperson said.

Spark said workers "will need to consider the risks associated with that travel based on their personal circumstances, just as they would have done with any travel in the past".

It said any business-related travel would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Consumer New Zealand spokesperson Gemma Rasmussen said anyone travelling in the trans-Tasman bubble needed to consider the risks.

"You could potentially be stranded if we look at the last year and the level of uncertainty that we've had. We would advise people to think long and hard about whether they are happy to go away and what happens to their job if they are stuck overseas for a long time."

Travellers who get caught up in any future outbreaks would have to foot the bill for any extended stays in Australia and managed isolation on return home if the quarantine-free travel bubble bursts while they're across the Tasman.

Travel insurance does not cover border changes but does cover those whose plans are disrupted if they contract COVID-19.

AA Travel Insurance spokesperson David Wallace said people booking travel needed to be aware of what they were covered for.

"It doesn't cover systemic issues such as government closing borders and the like but it does provide that extra level of reassurance that if someone were to contract or be suspected of [having COVID-19] and have out-of-pocket medical expenses and delays as a result of that, that we'll be beside them all the way through that," he said.

"The message from the government has been consistent in that travellers should be aware of the potential for border closures and the impacts that may come with that."

A stay in managed isolation in New Zealand starts at $3000 and the government has set aside 500 spaces in its managed isolation facilities in case of such situations.

Rasmussen said Consumer New Zealand would be monitoring changes to travel insurance policies.

"Consumers will be keeping a close eye on travel insurance policies to ensure people are getting a fair deal and the best deal. This is a new territory for them having to navigate COVID-19 and for the most part they are saying they are not going to be offering insurance to travellers when there are government imposed lockdowns.

A travel agency is urging anyone with flights booked to Australia to set aside a contingency fund.

House of Travel retail operations director Brent Thomas said those booking travel should not rely on travel insurance alone.

"It does cover COVID if people get it themselves but it won't cover the borders closing. People just need to also ensure they have a little bit of spare money in their bank account in the unlikely event borders close temporarily."

Regardless of the risk, he expected people to book holidays to Australia as winter approached.