New Zealand will keep the trans-Tasman travel bubble with Australia closed until at least December as the Covid-19 Delta variant remains in the wild in both countries.
The decision, announced today by NZ Covid-19 Minister Chris Hipkins, has dashed hopes by Qantas and Air New Zealand for an early return of planes and passengers darting across the ditch.
The NZ government suspended quarantine-free travel from Australia to New Zealand in July for an initial period of two months, but Hipkins today said that while New Zealand had "made great progress" to contain its outbreak and hoped to ease restrictions next week, "reopening quarantine-free travel with Australia at this point could put those gains at risk."
“When QFT (quarantine-free travel) was established with Australia, both our countries had very few recent cases of Covid-19 community transmission and a very similar elimination strategy. This has changed significantly leading to our decision to suspend QFT for a further eight weeks."
Air New Zealand cancels flights
Air New Zealand said that "all current flights from Australia to New Zealand between 25 September and 30 November will be cancelled," with would-be passengers due to receive a cancellation email later today and be given a credit for their flight.
The airline will run "a limited number of quarantine flights between Australia and New Zealand to help get people home", with the flights from New Zealand to Australia available to book from 10am NZT on Monday 20 September.
"Once customers have booked their flight, they will automatically receive a (hotel quarantine) room allocation. The cost of mandatory isolation is not included in the flight booking."
The airline's quarantine flights from Australia to New Zealand will be available to book following the release of the Government’s managed isolation rooms at 9am NZT, Monday 20 September.
A WA-NZ bubble?
New Zealand's Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson said that vaccination rates in both countries would be crucial when today's decision came up for review towards the end of November, but the prospects of a Christmas travel bubble remain uncertain.
"Sitting here from the perspective of today, it doesn't feel like a very likely outcome that we would start again in eight weeks," he said, "but we want to make sure that we've got the ability to reassess it then."
However, Robertson said that November's review would also consider state-based bubbles – a move that's been entertained on and off by PM Ardern – for quarantine-free NZ flights with states which have been successful in containing Covid, such as Western Australia.
Hipkins has previously said the country would "not necessarily" rule out opening to individual states rather than Australia as a whole.
Trans-Tasman bubble 2.0
As previously reported, vaccination checks and pre-departure tests are expected to become the new norm for trans-Tasman travel.
"I do think that we (will) open up to Australia, but in all likelihood we may end up operating Australia like we do with many countries when we feel travel is safe," Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran has suggested
"I can imagine you're probably going to have to be vaccinated. You're probably going to have to do a pre-departure test. You're probably going to have to do a test on the way home, and you're probably going to have to do a test when you arrive back in the country.”