Claire Trevett: Is the window closing on a transtasman bubble, and is it New Zealand’s fault?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern may not have given up on a transtasman bubble but it is little wonder Australia’s PM Scott Morrison is on the verge of giving up and casting his eyes elsewhere.

If Australia goes ahead with its proposal of a Singapore travel bubble it could well scuttle any chance of a transtasman bubble ahead of the public vaccination roll-out, although you probably will not get Ardern to admit that.

When it comes to pushing the green light on a transtasman bubble, Ardern has taken something of a Chicken Little approach.

Everything seems fine for a bubble in both New Zealand and Australia but what if the sky falls in?

For months now, Australia has let travellers from New Zealand in without quarantine, barring a few days when Auckland went into lockdown during the February cases.

New Zealand has had a very low tolerance for any risk and has managed to come up with reasons not to reciprocate.

Ardern was initially reluctant to consider a state-by-state bubble but has since switched to considering just that. Despite that, not a single Australian state has yet been given the ok.

Australia bringing Singapore into the equation will hardly help in that because of the greater risk of cases getting into Australia, and people travelling from Singapore to Australia then making their way to New Zealand through any transtasman bubble.

But it is little wonder that in recent weeks both Morrison and NSW Premier GladysBerejiklian have publicly questioned just how serious New Zealand is about a bubble.

The stated barriers to a transtasman bubble are the same now as they were at the start and the Government does not seem any closer to resolving them.

Ardern voiced her frustration when Morrison decided at short notice to halt quarantine-free travel for a few days during the Auckland outbreaks, saying a bubble would not work if the border barriers yo-yo’ed up and down.

Yet she herself points to a few recent cases in Australia as a reason the bubble is still not safe.

While Morrison is content to deal with such outbreaks as and when they pop up, Ardern seems to have an all-or-nothing view.

That does not bode well for a bubble, given such outbreaks are almost inevitable.

The chief obstacle put up by Ardern now is the same as at the start: how to deal with potentially thousands of people getting “stranded” in Australia, or having to quarantine upon their return because of a community outbreak over there.

This has been an identified issue for months and months – but there is little sign it is any closer to being resolved.

It has been estimated that allowing quarantine-free travel from Australia would free-up up to 40 per cent of the places in MIQ for travellers from other regions.

The argument is that the MIQ system in New Zealand could not cope with having to suddenly cater to an outbreak over the ditch. There seems to be little appetite for treating such outbreaks the same as a domestic one, and relying on isolation, contact tracing and testing in such a scenario.

Morrison has not stinted in making it clear the hold-up is on New Zealand’s part, saying if New Zealand did not want Australians spending up in places like Queenstown, that was their call.

He has also bluntly pointed out what New Zealand is missing by not allowing people from Australia in quarantine-free.

He has done that simply by stating what the benefits have been to Australia in opening its side of the one-way bubble:

“That is benefitting our economy. It’s benefitting, particularly, our travel and tourism industry, and the aviation sector, which has been most hardly hit by the pandemic.”

The good folk of Queenstown can only sit and wait.

The PM had initially proposed a bubble by the end of March this year.

That is one deadline she will not meet, though she continues to hold out hope of that bubble happening.

Whether Morrison is willing to wait is a different question.

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