Prime Minister Scott Morrison could be one of the first to use the looming trans-Tasman bubble, with talks between him and his New Zealand counterpart Jacinda Ardern due early in 2021.
The annual Australia-New Zealand leaders’ meeting is due within four months, right on schedule with the proposed bubble timeline.
It was at those talks in Sydney in February that Ms Ardern rebuked Mr Morrison for Australia’s policy of deporting criminals with Kiwi passports but without connection to New Zealand.
“Do not deport your people, and your problems,” Ms Ardern memorably said on February 28, with the Sydney Opera House as her backdrop.
On the same day, New Zealand recorded its first case of COVID-19.
While Mr Morrison has recently visited Japan to meet new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Ms Ardern has not left New Zealand since.
The trans-Tasman leaders meeting has yet to be scheduled in 2021, but will be hosted in New Zealand.
On Tuesday, A spokesman for Ms Ardern said the bubble timeline was unrelated to the prime ministerial visit but if it was ready in time “that would be a bonus”.
Australia and New Zealand first gave in-principle agreement to a shared non-quarantine travel arrangement in May, with both countries suffering outbreaks since.
The current delay to establishing the bubble is New Zealand’s responsibility.
Some Australian states, led by NSW, have already reopened their borders to New Zealanders.
Within an hour of Ms Ardern’s announcement on Monday that New Zealand would re-establish quarantine-free travel by the end of March, the Australian government confirmed it was waiting.
“We are ready to implement from our side as soon as New Zealand is ready,” federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said.
Rather than move more speedily to open borders, Ms Ardern has given her preference for a low-risk summer, saying “New Zealanders desperately need a break”.
On Tuesday, New Zealand’s COVID-19 Minister Chris Hipkins said reopening would require extra work from officials and cabinet approval, and was therefore impossible until at least late January.
“I was at Auckland Airport this morning going over with them, their plans to separate the airport into two areas … for people who are coming from non-safe zone countries and the safe side,” he said.
“We’re also talking to the airlines, they have their fleets grounded and they have to bring the capability back up.
“We’ve also still been working through those final details, so that when we do open up we can tell people what would happen in the event of an outbreak, whether in New Zealand or Australia.”
Many have questioned why it has taken New Zealand this long to come up with a resurgence plan.
“We need to get on with it,” opposition COVID-19 spokesman Chris Bishop said.
“New Zealanders have been able to travel to Australia without quarantining since October 16, but the same won’t happen in New Zealand until well into next year, costing our businesses and their staff dearly.”
New Zealand will first open its borders to the Cook Islands, which hasn’t had a case of COVID-19 throughout the pandemic.