NZ slams bubble shut with Australia

New Zealand has returned to its harshest border measures of the pandemic.
New Zealand has returned to its harshest border measures of the pandemic.

New Zealand has returned to its harshest border measures of the pandemic, locking down to the rest of the world.

After a week's grace period to allow Kiwis in Australia to return home, Jacinda Ardern's government shut the trans-Tasman bubble on Friday night, ending a troubled four-month spell of quarantine-free travel.

During that time 200,000 people travelled in either direction across the Tasman; all without spreading COVID-19.

But the dangerous Delta variant in the NSW cluster spooked the NZ government into closing the travel corridor.

"The Delta variant has materially changed the risk profile," Ms Ardern said.

Cabinet made the decision last Thursday - the same day that a key minister returned from an Australian holiday.

Deputy Prime Minster Grant Robertson visited Tasmania from 18 to 22 July, making use of a week's leave during a parliamentary recess period.

He has declined to answer questions about his travel, describing it as annual leave and therefore personal.

But the question remains: how could a state without a community COVID case in more than a year be safe for Ms Ardern's deputy one day, and blocked off to travel the next?

The bubble opened to much fanfare in late April, allowing for family reunifications, business and tourism to return to pre-pandemic levels after a year of closed borders.

In the four months since, it has been at least partially closed more often than it has been open.

That's in keeping with the 'hotspot' model deployed by Australian states, where states quickly lock down borders when new cases emerge.

However, New Zealand has now abandoned that model, instead opting for a blanket ban.

Safe places like ACT and Tasmania - without community cases in months - are being treated the same as crisis state NSW.

Uncontained cases in Sydney are the reason for New Zealand's policy shift.

With a largely unvaccinated population - just 21 per cent of Kiwis have had their first dose of vaccine - New Zealand would require a severe lockdown to crush the Delta variant if it spread.

"In the view of our health officials, there is greater risk now from the Delta variant than there was when we opened the quarantine-free travel arrangement with Australia," Ms Ardern said.

The government also believes that cases can slip between borders: which has occurred twice in July, once to Victoria and once to SA.

"There is movement across Australia between states ... we rely on the border controls that are in place but from time to time there are exemptions," COVID-19 Minister Chris Hipkins said.

"This is a way that we can guarantee that we're not reliant on there not being seepage or border crossings."

And while 200,000 Kiwis and Australians, and countless businesses, have benefitted from the trans-Tasman bubble, there is very little outcry in New Zealand from the move.

The genuinely held fears of a fresh outbreak in New Zealand at a time when vaccination rates are low mean community sentiment is strongly behind the 'Fortress New Zealand' approach.

The only place New Zealand remains open to is aligned Pacific paradise the Cook Islands, which has not had a case of COVID-19 during the pandemic.

Australian Associated Press