New Zealanders should travel to the islands - experts

Experts in New Zealand are urging for a Pacific and New Zealand travel bubble before one with Australia, especially with COVID-19 free countries like Samoa.

In a blog by the Science Media Centre of New Zealand, University of Otago’s Professor, Nick Wilson, said if New Zealand can work to verify its COVID-19 free status with widespread testing, it should be opening up travel soon.

“This might require New Zealand offering support to verify their COVID-19-free status with serosurveys (widespread antibody testing) or other verification processes,” the Public Health professor said.

“But these nations should be the first nations for New Zealand to work with for open travel arrangements – probably ahead of Australia which still has uncontrolled pandemic spread.”

He suggests Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu and even Fiji should be top of mind for New Zealand, to open up the flow of tourists and workers between nations.

Maintaining ongoing surveillance is going to be a challenge, but the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (E.S.R.) are investigating testing sewerage for the virus as a way of combatting this.

The Chair of the Economics of Disasters and Climate Change at Victoria University of Wellington Professor Ilan Noy said as long as travellers are not transiting from other countries, Pacific travelers should be able to come to New Zealand and vice versa.

“We are not the sovereign in these countries; it is their decision whether they will allow New Zealanders in,” Professor Noy said.

“It should be their decision whether they want to impose any testing requirements on travellers coming from New Zealand, but frankly I don’t think that is necessary, given our COVID-free status. If they do choose to require testing, we should assist in facilitating that, but it is their decision.

With the tourism-dependent Pacific nations struggling without travellers to their shores, the professor believes opening up travel should be more urgently achieved.

“I am troubled that this sense of urgency is not manifest in a more rapid positive decision,” he said.

“Many in the Pacific depend very heavily on tourism, so the current slump is very significant for them, even though they have had no confirmed cases of the virus. 

“Of course, all of this depends on us and the Pacific Island countries remaining COVID-free.”

An outspoken advocate of a Pacific-New Zealand travel arrangement, Dr. Colin Tukuitonga said quarantine free travel between countries can and should be done.

He urged that the Cook Islands and Samoa be considered part of a travel bubble, and that their policies align with each other’s. 

Currently Samoa requires a negative test for COVID-19 three days before travel, and mandates 14-day quarantine in Samoa upon arrival. The Ministry of Health has not confirmed whether it is testing arriving passengers at the end of their quarantine period or not.

Dr. Tukuitonga, who is the Associate Dean Pacific, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences in the University of Auckland said with island nations actively seeking travel arrangements, New Zealand should be working to oblige.

“I know that politicians remain concerned having been through the measles outbreak in Samoa,” he said.

“I am confident that all of the island nations have good measures in place to restrict the importation of COVID-19.”

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s Minster for Immigration is concerned the border won’t be opening up to non-residents or citizens anytime soon. 

In an interview with Radio New Zealand, Iain Lees-Galloway said New Zealand can take in just 250 people per day: the available number of quarantine hotel rooms for returning citizens and returning guest workers freeing up during the 14-day quarantine cycle (there are 3200 rooms altogether).

“The bulk of those 250 places a day are still being taken up by New Zealanders. New Zealanders are still travelling back into New Zealand. And, of course, our own citizens and residents remain at the top,” Mr. Lees-Galloway said.

And there are 10,000 New Zealand citizens still looking to get home, plus 14,000 residents with work visas who are still entitled to return. 

The number of hotel rooms available is difficult to increase with the quarantine criteria.

Chief Executive Officer of the Ministry of Finance Leasiosiofaasisina Oscar Malielegaoi said there remain nearly 2000 Samoans in New Zealand alone trying to get back to their islands.

And with the limited number of quarantine hotel rooms available, Samoa is only taking in a planeload of around 150 citizens every fortnight, after a planeload has finished a 14-day quarantine period. 

If measures remain as they are, it will take more than 13 flights to get that waiting list home from New Zealand, taking at least six more months before non-citizens or residents can start booking seats to Samoa.

And whether tourists will come to Samoa if they are expected to quarantine for two weeks before their holiday begins is yet to be seen. 

The Cook Islands has opened its borders to New Zealanders and will not expect testing or quarantine. But New Zealand will still mandate a two week quarantine period on return from the Cook Islands.

New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Vaovasamanaia Winston Peters has said the country is assessing Pacific Island’s maritime and aviation security measures, as well as how their health systems could cope with a possible Covid-19 outbreak.


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