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Covid 19 coronavirus: Jack Tame – Why it’s time for a transtasman bubble

OPINION:

I’m going to start by crossing my fingers and very publicly knocking on wood.

I’m not trying to stress you out. I’m not trying to spook anyone. But have you imagined what would happen if there was an unexpected outbreak of Covid-19 some time in the next week or two?

EEEEE…! I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It’s a prospect so hideous I hate to even mention it. But it’s a possibility, right? We know our border control measures aren’t 100 per cent fail-proof. And just imagine if the Government was forced to decide on another lockdown a few days before Christmas. Something tells me that scenario might test the public faith in the New Zealand elimination strategy.

So for goodness sake, please, don’t get sloppy now … use the Covid app!

With Christmas this close, I understand why the powers that be want to continue our conservative approach when it comes to Covid-19. Kiwis are going to be travelling a lot internally over the next week or two – and I don’t sense that many of us have a big appetite for risk.

But after Christmas and into the 2021, our leaders have to make the transtasman bubble an absolute priority. If it weren’t for Christmas and New Year, there’s little reason it shouldn’t be up and running now.

I should say I’ve been very careful with my words this year. Unlike a lot of my colleagues, I didn’t come on the radio in the early days of this pandemic and say “New Zealand’s being crazy … we need to open up now!” I waited. I respected expertise. And I respected the fact we didn’t know much about Covid-19.

But it’s for that same reason I really think we need to get our A into G, after the New Year.

Epidemiologists here and in Australia – even the more conservatively-minded ones – can see little reason why a bubble shouldn’t be established. Our contact-tracing capacity is vastly improved on where it was at the start of the year. The borders are effectively closed. And having been through managed isolation, I think the systems are well established. They’re pretty solid.

But it’s not rational to use all of that resource on people arriving from places where there is little or no Covid-19. My aunt has just returned from Australia and spent two weeks in managed isolation. You can’t tell me she posed a bigger threat than the people on my plane arriving from the United States. So why would we treat her the same?

We’re on top of things. We are managing the risk. We have the capacity to build nuance into the system.

One of the main holdups according to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is Australia’s definition of what qualifies as a Covid-19 hotspot. It would take a state recording 30 cases across three consecutive days for a regional travel ban to be introduced. That means if a state had 28 or 27 cases across three days, hypothetically people could still travel to New Zealand.

But there’s nothing to stop Ardern and her advisers setting a different, tougher standard for entry into New Zealand. Why not establish a bubble with the broadly-publicised caveat, that if conditions worsen, the rules might very quickly become more strict?

For example, say a state records 15 cases across three days – we then require anyone arriving from Australia to self-isolate. That would be part of the deal. People could travel without restrictions, but know that if things get bad they’d be legally required to self-isolate. If an outbreak is really serious, we go one further. We pause passenger flights until there’s space for travellers coming from Australia to go through the MIQ process again.

Obviously, none of these scenarios is ideal. There is risk in every restriction we choose to loosen. But if we can get through Christmas and New Year – knock on wood – it’s time to set our ambitions a little further afield.

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