After months of planning, abandoned deadlines, dashed hopes and lingering doubts, the time may finally have come for the trans-Tasman travel bubble.
On Tuesday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s cabinet is expected to sign off on an opening date for quarantine-free travel from Australia.
NZ has been closed its borders to all but approved arrivals for a year.
For separated families and tourism-reliant industries, pre-COVID travel rules can’t come soon enough.
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Most Australian states have allowed Kiwis to visit without the need for a fortnight of hotel quarantine for months.
However, NZ has held off on offering a bypass to COVID-19 restrictions for Australians.
Ms Ardern has walked away from two previous deadlines to create the bubble.
In March, under pressure from her political opponents, Ms Ardern pledged to give a new start date on April 6.
Behind the scenes, wheels appear to be in motion.
Government officials have been tinkering with plans, including regulations for airports, airlines, how to contact trace Kiwis while overseas, and response protocols to Australian outbreaks.
One of the conditions of the plan is a separation of airports into ‘green zones’ for quarantine-free flights and ‘red zones’ for flights carrying passengers from countries with COVID in the community.
Airport executives say they’ll be ready from mid-April, and health officials are due to inspect Auckland Airport this week with a view to clearing the country’s biggest airport for take-off.
The NZ Herald reports Air New Zealand is planning adding additional quarantine-free flights from Auckland to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane from next week.
The national carrier hopes to fly from NZ’s three other international airports, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown, when the bubble is announced.
In Wellington, the issue is mired in domestic politics.
Ms Ardern’s government built enormous credibility with Kiwis in 2020 by putting a premium on public safety during the pandemic.
More than a year after the arrival of coronavirus in New Zealand, Kiwis remain fearful of the return of the deadly virus.
Many do not want a bubble, even if Australia’s hotspot model has proven effective at containing outbreaks within local environments.
NZ first agreed the bubble in May 2020 after Ms Ardern attended Australia’s national cabinet meeting, with Australian counterpart Scott Morrison and state and territory leaders.
Ms Ardern pledged to restore regular travel by September, before Melbourne’s major outbreak quashed those hopes.
In her final media conference of 2020, she declared the government’s new deadline was the end of March 2021 – only to see that timeframe sail past again.
NZ has managed to restore pre-COVID travel for one country – the Cook Islanders – but only for residents of the closely aligned Pacific nation.