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Open up Pacific travel zone, private sector argues

New Zealand should be able to scale up safe arrivals while allowing managed travel to COVID-19 free countries, researchers and private sector representatives argue.

In a panel hosted by the New Zealand Pacific Business Council (N.Z.P.B.C.) on Wednesday, Auckland Airport’s Mick Cottrell said with extremely detailed planning the airport is ready for business in 14 days.

Having separated its international arrivals into two ‘piers,’ the Manager of the Aeronautical Commercial team said the airport can safely absorb both arrivals from COVID-19 affect and unaffected countries with separate terminals and services.

Everything from customs, baggage collection to security has been doubled up, one for each side of the terminal, which have been fully sealed off from each other. 

Pier A will be for travel between quarantine-free travel countries like the Pacific and possibly some states in Australia, while Pier B will be for arrivals that go straight into quarantine facilities.

“We basically have unlimited capacity for unlimited arrivals,” Mr. Cottrell said. 

If and when a travel bubble between COVID-19 free countries could open, the Auckland Airport will be ready from August 17, and will remain that way.

“We get asked ‘are you ready if something would happen and a bubble opened’, the answer is unequivocally yes.”

Meanwhile this week the United Nations and Asian Development Bank are hosting virtual discussions in the Pacific over how to reopen safely.

The first of several meetings for the region is for the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Fiji, with further meetings being planned for the Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa and Tokelau.

The meetings will focus on border security, including ensuring countries understand not only which countries they want to open their borders too but which other places those nations are open to.

United Nations Resident Coordinator in Fiji Sanaka Samarasinha said international organisations can help the Pacific Island countries ready themselves for opening up safely.

“While the decision of when, how and with whom to open borders is a sovereign decision, safety, vigilance, responsibility and international co-operation are critical as the world slowly opens up again,” he said.

Dr. Eric Crampton, who is the chief economist of Wellington-based think tank The New Zealand Initiative said he wants to see a Pacific bubble opened sooner rather than later.

If an epidemiologist is satisfied that a country is safe of COVID-19, like New Zealand, then people should be able to travel in and out without a 14-day quarantine period.

“We should be thinking about it less as who should we have bilateral negotiations with and more which places are safe and can we have safe travel with and can we re-impose restrictions if it becomes necessary,” he said.

Arrangements need to be flexible, subject to change should cases crop up, but they do need to happen soon.

Dr. Crampton said any safe travel zone should not wait until after New Zealand’s elections in September.

“The New Zealand Government finds new reasons to say no […] they don’t want anything to happen before election, [so] any excuse will do,” he said.

A safe Pacific bubble would rely on strong systems at New Zealand’s border when it comes to managed isolation and quarantine and routine testing.

This week it emerged that the bus drivers transporting returning citizens and residents to their isolation facilities were not being routinely tested.

The ability to safely bring people into New Zealand has to be robust and able to be scaled up.

Dr. Crampton said this is important not only to help the Pacific economies but for the humanitarian obligation New Zealand has to bring any of its one million citizens who live abroad back home, should they need to return.

In June, the N.Z.P.B.C. put out a public call for a Pacific travel bubble, asking for it to be prioritised ahead of any trans-Tasman travel zone.

They argued that tourism, seasonal workers and trade are depending on free and safe travel between countries.

“Continued border restrictions are a serious concern to the economic livelihoods of not only Pacific Nations and businesses, but New Zealand businesses – large and small - operating in the Pacific (including N.Z.P.B.C.’s members),” the open letter states.

“We need to support our Pacific neighours who, right now, are having great difficulty in supporting themselves.”

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