A single COVID infection has thrown Australia’s travel bubble with New Zealand into jeopardy, with the federal Health Minister having “significant” concerns about the case of the virus’s South African variant.
Scores of people have been told to immediately isolate and get tested, as Australian authorities scramble to track down anyone who arrived from NZ in the past two weeks.
Kiwis have been told to reconsider any travel to Australia until Thursday at least. There are two trans-Tasman flights scheduled in coming days, with any new arrivals to be forced into standard hotel quarantine.
“We apologise to those who may be inconvenienced,” Health Minister Greg Hunt said.
Just hours after announcing the positive development of Australia’s first COVID vaccine approval on Monday, Mr Hunt warned the government was temporarily closing its ‘bubble’ arrangement with NZ for three days while authorities tracked the Northland case.
He said the move came from “an abundance of caution”.
Anyone who arrived in Australia since January 14 is being ordered to isolate immediately and get tested.
Mr Hunt said authorities were concerned because the new, “concerning” case had visited multiple venues in NZ while potentially infectious.
NZ health authorities revealed a 56-year-old Northland woman had tested positive for the virus after completing her 14-day isolation after arrival in New Zealand.
The woman returned two negative tests while in her compulsory hotel stay, and was released on January 13 before travelling around the region with her husband.
Deputy chief medical officer Michael Kidd, standing alongside Mr Hunt at the hastily arranged media conference on Monday afternoon, said the South African variant was “more transmissible and presents a heightened level of risk”.
The Queensland government put Brisbane into a three-day lockdown earlier this month, over one community case of the United Kingdom strain.
Mr Hunt said Australia was temporarily pausing its NZ bubble arrangements in order to see if the infection had spread.
He also praised NZ’s tracing and testing systems, saying he had confidence in the trans-Tasman government getting any outbreak under control.
“We have been very happy working with New Zealand. We’ve kept that green zone open … There have been challenges. They are one of the world’s best contact tracing systems. They are doing outstandingly well,” Mr Hunt said.
He said Australia’s Border Force was working with NZ authorities to inform Kiwi passengers of the changes, and also tracking down any recent arrivals.
Mr Hunt said any arrivals during at least the next three days would have to go into hotel quarantine for at least that period, and possibly up to 14 days, pending developments in the case.
⚠️ Public Health Alert: Queensland ⚠️
Queensland Health is asking anyone who has arrived in Queensland from New Zealand since 14 January 2021, including on green corridor flights, to get tested and quarantine until you receive a negative test result.https://t.co/YmJgm9ej7x pic.twitter.com/47pXyNaNNT
— Queensland Health (@qldhealthnews) January 25, 2021
State health authorities will manage hotel quarantine issues.
The federal government will re-evaluate the travel bubble after Thursday.
Morrison praises ‘world-class regulator’
It was a stark contrast to just hours earlier, when Mr Hunt was announcing more positive COVID news alongside Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration finally gave its tick to the Pfizer jab, the first coronavirus vaccine approved in Australia.
Australia can’t produce the Pfizer vaccine onshore, so our 10 million doses – enough for five million people – will be manufactured in Europe and the US.
The TGA has today provisionally approved the Pfizer/BioNTech #COVID19 vaccine for use in Australia. This is an important step in our fight against this terrible virus. Read more: https://t.co/Mjkzhj7RUy
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) January 25, 2021
Mr Morrison praised the TGA, saying Australians “should take confidence in the thorough and careful approach taken by our world-class safety regulator”.
The Pfizer jab showed a 95 per cent efficacy in clinical trials, with the TGA saying it had met “the high safety, efficacy and quality standards required for use in Australia”.
However, its effectiveness varies in stopping illness and death, versus stopping transmission.
“COMIRNATY has been shown to prevent COVID-19, however it is not yet known whether it prevents transmission or asymptomatic disease,” the TGA said in its approval.
Vaccine delays ‘unacceptable’
Labor leader Anthony Albanese seized on Mr Morrison’s admission of potential delays to the rollout schedule, criticising the timeframe.
When vaccines were approved in the US, Canada, the EU and the UK, doses were made available within a week.
Now that a vaccine has been approved here, Australians are wondering – how long will we have to wait? pic.twitter.com/HdeYcRYb2S
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) January 25, 2021
Mr Albanese had lit a fire under the vaccine plan late last year, saying he was unhappy about the government’s then-plan to begin jabs in late March. On Monday, he criticised the shifting timeframes.
“How long will Australians have to wait after now, the TGA has given the big tick?” Mr Albanese said.
“We said consistently that once the TGA approval occurred, the vaccines should be rolled out as soon as possible. We were told it would be late March. Then it was early March. Then it was some time in February.”
He said the Opposition would be “holding him to account” on vaccine delivery.
“[Mr Morrison] chose to say that four million doses would occur before March,” Mr Albanese said.
“It is relevant, not just for me to hold the Prime Minister to account for what he says, but, without telling the Fourth Estate your job, it’s up to you also to hold him to account for what he says.”
Labor’s health spokesman, Chris Bowen, tweeted that “Further delays in procuring & distributing the vaccine will be unacceptable.”