Pacific 'travel bubble' talks ongoing

Samoa's part in a potential Pacific-wide travel network with Australia and New Zealand remains unclear, as the two largest nations continue negotiating the future of a potential free travel zone. 

Wade Laube, a media spokesman for Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific said establishing travel between Australia and New Zealand remained a primary priority before heading to the Pacific Islands.

“We’re keen to do it, but it’s pretty challenging because the key principle here is to ensure the health and safety of people across the Pacific,” he said.

“If we get this wrong there is a risk of accidentally exposing Pacific people to coronavirus from Australia, potentially.”

Minister Hawke’s spokesman said it was too early to say when travel routes might open up but added that the creation of a so-called “travel bubble” between Australia and New Zealand would impart valuable lessons for any future inclusion of Pacific states. 

“There will be lessons learned, and we can focus our attention on what we might be able to do across the Pacific.” Mr. Laube said.  

It is expected the two nations will begin open travel between them with no quarantine restrictions once COVID-19 is sufficiently under control.

The major drivers for the Pacific to seek inclusion inside such a travel zone is a chance to not only reopen tourism but also seasonal work. 

On the other side of the Tasman, the Minister for Pacific People’s Aupito William Sio told the Samoa Observer that as well as safety, honouring the Pacific Island’s independence and autonomy is important too. 

“Pacific countries have got to make their own decisions; it’s not for New Zealand to decide,” he said. 

“The Pacific Reset gives us a foundational framework to have these discussions on a number of different levels, with myself, my colleagues, the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, to their counterparts.”

Thanks to “deep and intimate” relationships around the region, Aupito said those discussions are progressing well. 

But New Zealand being a gateway and therefore a vector for the coronavirus remains a top concern. 

“It’s easy for New Zealand to export COVID-19 as we have seen with the measles,” the Minister said. 

“My thinking has been that the Pacific nation’s health systems are prepared and strong enough to protect the local population in the event that we might export COVID-19 to the region.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Australian counterpart Scott Morrison both told the media on Tuesday they had spoken and recommitted to the trans-Tasman bubble concept but for now are not ready to name a date on when travel might begin.

“We are both at a phase of opening up, or easing restrictions ... in the meantime, we're getting our borders ready,” Ms. Ardern said. 

New Zealand’s experts are predicting the novel coronavirus could be considered successfully eliminated if there are no new cases four to five weeks after the last detected case.

Professor Nick Wilson, Dr. Matthew Parry, Dr. Ayesha Verrall, Professor Michael Baker, and Professor Martin Eichner published their modelling study in a blog on the University of Otago website.

They estimate that for New Zealand to be 95 per cent sure it has eliminated the virus, it would take 27 to 33 days (two full infection cycles) of no new cases, and a further 37 to 44 days to be 99 per cent sure. 

“Once N.Z. can declare itself having achieved SARS-CoV-2 elimination status, it can potentially phase out nearly all restrictive disease control measures, while maintaining tight border controls with quarantine for incoming travellers,” the researchers state.

“It could also then explore permitting quarantine-free travel with other COVID-19 free nations, as envisaged by the Prime Ministers of Australia and NZ in terms of a trans-Tasman “bubble”.

“More realistically, however, it might be that such quarantine-free travel with NZ first begins with other island jurisdictions that have never had cases of COVID-19 and for whom NZ is the main or only air-traffic transit hub (eg, Samoa, Tonga, Cook Islands, Niue), or which might declare elimination status before Australia (eg, possibly Taiwan).”

The models, and New Zealand’s chance at elimination success, rely heavily on people reporting their symptoms to a doctor.

If only 20 per cent of symptomatic people seek medical attention, it could take up to 91 days to be sure of elimination, compared to if nearly 40 per cent did, bringing the time down to closer to a month.

The trouble, the authors state, is that the Ministry of Health has not yet defined ‘elimination.’ The authors argue any definition should be done in conjunction with Australia, be based on science and require minimal but high-quality surveillance.

A key is decided when to start counting those 27 to 33 days from.

The authors believe it should be the date of the last newly notified case of COVID-19 transmission within New Zealand, and the last estimated date before this case went into isolation.

“In the context of a high level of testing, a period of around one month of no new notified cases of COVID-19 would give 95 per cent certainty that elimination of SARS-CoV-2 transmission had been achieved in NZ,” the research states. 

“But the country urgently needs the Ministry of Health to provide an official definition of elimination and to upgrade the data on its website so that the public, the media and researchers can monitor progress towards achieving this important goal.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the National Emergency Operations Centre were approached for comment for this story but did not reply. 

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