New Zealand not rushing on Pacific bubble arrangements

New Zealand will continue to take its time reopening tourism flows between itself and the COVID-19 free Pacific.

That country's Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, declined to name a timeframe on national television Monday morning.

Speaking to Newshub’s AM Show, Ms. Ardern said any country will need a set of criteria on reopening borders that New Zealand will need to see and feel comfortable with.

"We've only been at level 1 for a week, so I am going to be cautious in that decision-making - unapologetically - because our borders are the reason that we now have the freedom that we have,” she said.

It has been three weeks since a new case of COVID-19 was reported in New Zealand, and four weeks since the last known case of community transmission completed their self-isolation. 

Meanwhile the Cook Islands, Samoa, Kiribati, Nauru, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu and Tuvalu have reported no cases at all and Papua New Guinea and Fiji have successfully cleared their islands of cases. 

But Ms. Ardern said simply having no cases is not enough.

“What we need to see for any country that we make that decision around, regardless of whether or not we're talking about the realm countries - Cook Islands and Niue, versus Australia - a set of criteria that New Zealand needs to see in order for us to feel that both we're not running the risk of exporting any cases, and equally we're not seeing the risk of any coming in here,” she said. 

“If we move quickly or without making a full analysis of those decisions, we run the risk of losing everything. That's why we're going to be very careful here.”

Because New Zealand is working to open up travel to Australia, which has not yet stamped out its COVID-19 spread, Pacific Islands need to be comfortable with that travel arrangement too.

As of 14 June, there were 385 cases in Australia and while the rate of new cases is slowing with 18 new cases in the last 24 hours, it is not quite close to stopping.

Ms. Ardern that that potential arrangement with Australia is of concern to Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna, who said that could put his country at risk of infection. 

“The Cook Islands has to be happy to open with New Zealand, and also doing a little bit of thinking around whether or not they would be happy with the trans-Tasman arrangements as well. It's a bit of making sure we can make that whole system work when we open up those borders,” she said.

“Even if they say 'yes, let's open to New Zealand', if New Zealand has people coming in from a state of Australia, they have to be happy with that too. And we have to be happy with that.”

She also echoed her Deputy Prime Minister Vaovasamanaia Winston Peters, saying with other Pacific countries having less control on their borders, especially maritime borders, there remain concerns that need to be addressed.

Samoa’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has not confirmed to what extent the country is negotiating or discussing open borders with New Zealand.

Meanwhile all incoming passengers on fortnightly repatriation flights must be Samoan citizens or residents, have been tested negative for COVID-19 and will undergo a 14 day quarantine on arrival in Samoa. 

Former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clarke has been a loud advocate for a Pacific-New Zealand ‘bubble.’ 

On Twitter on Monday, she asked why the country won’t begin a travel arrangement with the islands first, and have Australia join later when it is COVID-19 free.

“Bubble could be reviewed if/when NZ opens to trans-Tasman travel; won’t be soon given ongoing new cases in NSW and Victoria,” she said. 

Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific Alex Hawke last week told Sky News he absolutely supports a Pacific travel bubble but only after routes are established to New Zealand.

“Of course, Prime Minister Morrison and Prime Minister Ardern have said in their statement ew have to get the trans-Tasman bubble up and running first,” he said.

“And then we are already doing the policy work to be ready to open up to Pacific countries after the success of the trans-Tasman bubble. 

“Starting a trans-Tasman bubble makes sense first,” he said.

He said he is concerned about the risk of spreading any COVID-19 into the region especially given the success in the region keeping it out so far. 

“There are things we can do in-between, mind you,” Mr. Hawke continued.

“In the meantime we are working on enabling more Pacific workers to be able to come here and do the seasonal work they do. We will have shortfalls in the agricultural sector and we think Pacific Islanders can come here and work and have the remittances go back to their countries in the middle of this pandemic.”

He told Sky News that he his number one concern about any travel bubble to the Pacific is the health impact of the pandemic.  

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