Coronavirus: Flights paused between New Zealand, New South Wales following Sydney community cases

Flights between New Zealand and New South Wales have been paused after two community cases of COVID-19 were found in Sydney.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins made the announcement on Thursday evening after a man in his 50s tested positive for the virus - marking New South Wales' first community case in more than a month. He visited a movie theatre, restaurants, a service station and a meat store in the city's eastern suburbs over five days while he was unknowingly infectious.

His wife later tested positive on Thursday, with traces of the virus detected in western Sydney's sewage sytstem.

Travel will be paused from 11:59pm on Thursday and this will be under constant review. No other Australian states are included in the suspension.

Whole genome sequencing has linked the case to a recent returnee who arrived in Australia from the United States, but an epidemiological link has yet to be determined between the case and the returnee.

Advice Hipkins received from Australian authorities indicates there could be an intermediary between the community cases and the returnee.

Hipkins says anyone who has been in Sydney over the past week will be contacted, asked about their movements, and asked to take a test - however the overall risk to New Zealanders is deemed to be low.

"This isn't a decision we take lightly," he says.

He adds if any New Zealanders are using Australia's COVID-19 tracing app and they've scanned into locations of interest, they will receive push notifications.

Anyone who has visited one of the locations of interest is subject to the requirements of the New South Wales government and asked not travel to New Zealand.

Speaking to reporters, Hipkins defended the speed at which the travel pause was announced, saying health officials wanted to gather the right information before making the call. He ultimately "erred on the side of caution", he said.

The Government may end or extend the pause, Hipkins said, depending on what information comes to light on Friday.

A flight from Sydney, due to arrive at 11:55pm in Auckland on Thursday night, will still be able to land, even if it is delayed.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 16: An Air New Zealand plane is seen at Auckland Airport on March 16, 2020 in Auckland, New Zealand. Air New Zealand has announced it will reduce its international capacity by 85 per cent as a result of the current coronavirus pandemic and its impact on travel demand. The airline is suspending flights between Auckland and Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, Buenos Aires, Vancouver, Tokyo Narita, Honolulu, Denpasar and Taipei from 30 March to 30 June. It is also suspending its London–Los Angeles service from 20 March through to 30 June. Air New Zealand's Tasman and Pacific Island network capacity will significantly reduce between April and June, while domestic route capacity will be reduced by around 30 percent in April and May. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
Photo credit: Getty Images

Air New Zealand chief operational integrity and safety officer Captain David Morgan confirmed that other flights on Thursday evening will still operate as normal.

"Flight NZ113 will operate from Auckland to Sydney this evening as normal. NZ248 from Sydney to Wellington and NZ106 from Sydney to Auckland this evening will also operate as normal as both will depart Sydney well before the cut-off time of 11:59pm AEDT," he says.

"All Air New Zealand flights to and from Sydney tomorrow [Friday] have been cancelled except for NZ103 which will operate from Auckland to Sydney as normal with customers and cargo. The return service from Sydney to Auckland has been renumbered as NZ1104 and will operate as a cargo-only flight."

Customers booked on impacted flights are being given the option to rearrange their flights, put their flight into credit, or receive a refund if they purchased a refundable ticket.

"From an operational perspective, we have been here before with pauses in one-way quarantine-free travel to Australia over the past few months, and our teams are working hard behind the scenes to ensure our customers are kept up to date," Morgan says.

"We look forward to connecting customers in New South Wales with New Zealand again once the lockdown has lifted."

Earlier on Thursday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave a warning to New Zealanders who are currently in Australia.

"Our advice to all travellers into Australia [is to] constantly be vigilant around health messaging, keep an eye out for health authorities posting any areas of locations of interest, and just be constantly vigilant in where it is you're moving to."

She added that preparing for "scenarios like these" was all part of having the bubble, saying she was happy with how quickly New Zealand was informed about the initial community case.

"So far, that information sharing has been very good."