Two-way quarantine-free travel between Australia and New Zealand could resume by March 2021, with NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying her Government has agreed in principle to open a trans-Tasman travel bubble with Australia early next year.
Speaking at her final post-Cabinet press conference of the year, Ardern said there was agreement that the bubble would open in the first quarter of 2021.
A start date for the new travel arrangements would be announced "in the new year once (the) remaining details are locked down" between both countries, she said, on the proviso that they remain effectively COVID-free.
Ardern told TVNZ's Breakfast there were still a "number of issues" to work through, such as what would happen in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak once the bubble was up and running.
"We would need to know how we're dealing with the internal borders with Australia and also we would have to have the airlines ready," Ardern said.
"We are quite keen to see segregated airline staff for quarantine-free travel." However, she added these issues were "not insurmountable".
The Trans-Tasman Safe Border Group – comprised of government agencies, health experts, airports, Qantas and Air New Zealand – has already drawn up a detailed blueprint for how travel would reopen.
Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said Australia would now move quickly to open the travel bubble.
"We consciously opened up Australia to people coming from New Zealand because their case numbers were negligible, and we knew there would come a time when our case numbers gave them confidence," Hunt said.
"We've already committed to the principle of a two-way bubble, we've established it as a one-way bubble... now this gives the chance for New Zealanders or Australians to visit New Zealand – whether it's for friends, family, weddings, funerals, births, holidays, business – without having to quarantine."
Ramping up flights
Air New Zealand, Qantas and Virgin Australia will all be eager to boost their flights across the pond and tap into pent-up demand for travel.
Australia and New Zealand have long been each other’s number one travel destination: 2019 saw some 2.6 million residents of each country jetting back and forth across the Tasman, according to Stats NZ.
A spokesman for Qantas said the airline was "looking forward to adding significant amounts of capacity across the Tasman once details about the bubble and when it will begin is confirmed."
In a statement issued this afternoon, Virgin Australia said it weclomed the New Zealand government’s "in-principle decision to establish quarantine-free travel with Australia."
The airline currently lists more than 70 services to New Zealand per week on sale from March 28 2021 and says "the decision gives us time to prepare aircraft and crew for re-entry into New Zealand skies."
"We’ll continue to review and adjust our schedule in line with demand and the start dates for quarantine-free travel being worked through by the respective governments."
A bubble of hope
The concept of an Australia-New Zealand bubble was raised in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Ardern beginning discussions in May about reopening their borders.
"If there is any country in the world with whom we can reconnect with first, undoubtedly that's New Zealand,” Morrison said at the time.
Those hopes were dashed due to subsequent outbreaks in Melbourne, Sydney and Auckland.
Earlier this month Australia's nation-wide ban on international travel was extended to March 2021, although exceptions could be brought into place for 'safe' destinations such as New Zealand.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has also forecast that with apart from the prospects of flights to New Zealand and other 'bubble' countries, international travel would remain "at a virtual standstill" until at least the middle of 2021.