‘ So how do we open up to China? ’

A trans-Tas­man bub­ble could still be months away, as Aus­tralian states squab­ble and New Zealand takes a wait-and-see ap­proach. But oth­ers ar­gue it would be safe and pro­vide an eco­nomic life­line, al­low­ing the bor­der to open sooner. By Be­van Hur­ley and Luke

Sunday Star-Times - - Front Page -

One day into his new job as Na­tional leader, Todd Muller muses how New Zealand can ex­tend its bub­ble wider than just Aus­tralia

Epi­demi­ol­o­gist Michael Baker says he’d hap­pily jump on a plane to Syd­ney to­mor­row to see his brother if the borders were to re­open.

The bil­lions of dol­lars in travel and trade that flow an­nu­ally be­tween New Zealand and its near­est neigh­bour are seen as a sal­va­tion that could keep hun­dreds of busi­nesses afloat.

And Baker, a Univer­sity of Otago pub­lic health pro­fes­sor and ex­pert on pandemics, says a grad­ual re­open­ing of the borders could hap­pen ‘‘quite soon’’, as long as the risk was care­fully man­aged.

‘‘I’d hap­pily hop on a plane to­mor­row to visit my brother who’s a GP in Syd­ney.’’

Baker’s brother has been di­ag­nos­ing peo­ple with Covid-19 and his sis­ter-in-law is also an epi­demi­ol­o­gist, and they’ve been keep­ing him up to speed with events there.

‘‘It’s all a mat­ter of risk,’’ says Baker, who was a lead­ing voice in push­ing the Gov­ern­ment to take stricter mea­sures at the be­gin­ning of the pan­demic.

Baker said the use of face masks and dig­i­tal trac­ing could pro­vide a high de­gree of com­fort that the coro­n­avirus wouldn’t be rein­tro­duced to New Zealand.

‘‘When you were look­ing at whether you re­sume large scale travel with Aus­tralia, the first thing you would look at is, what’s the risk of some­one step­ping on a plane who’s cur­rently in­cu­bat­ing the virus, and it’s ap­proach­ing zero.

‘‘Then you think: what do you need to do to make a very small risk man­age­able. You’ve got quar­an­tine, test­ing, tem­per­a­ture check­ing, and trac­ing peo­ple’s move­ments.’’

It would likely re­quire a cap on vis­i­tor num­bers to be­gin with, and be care­fully mon­i­tored be­fore be­ing opened up to the kind of cross-bor­der traf­fic seen be­fore the pan­demic.

‘‘At that point it gets harder be­cause the small risks mount up in pro­por­tion to the peo­ple. That’s when you have to have sys­tems that can work at a big scale.

‘‘Be­cause it will cost bil­lions of dol­lars if we lose our elim­i­na­tion sta­tus. It’s high stakes. That’s when you start to bal­ance those very small risks.’’

Baker says he’d wear a mask dur­ing the flight, even though the risk of sit­ting next to some­one who’s in­fected – par­tic­u­larly from New Zealand – is ex­ceed­ingly low.

‘‘I think masks are the key bar­rier we need to have in place given what we know about this virus.’’

Open­ing up the borders would give New Zealand a ma­jor ad­van­tage to at­tract not only tourists, but in­dus­tries such as film and ed­u­ca­tion sec­tors look­ing for a Covid-free en­vi­ron­ment.

Aus­tralia’s states have had a patch­work ap­proach to virus con­tain­ment, and Prime Min­is­ter Scott Mor­ri­son has said in­ter­na­tional travel would only re­sume when in­ter­state borders had fully re­opened..

And this week ten­sions be­tween state pre­miers over those dif­fer­ing ap­proaches to re­sum­ing na­tion­wide travel turned into a pub­lic slugfest.

NSW premier Gla­dys Bere­jik­lian said travel re­stric­tions would be ditched by June 1, and sug­gested her West­ern Aus­tralian coun­ter­part Mark MacGowan was keep­ing borders closed for pop­u­lar­ity. In re­sponse, MacGowan claimed he was be­ing bul­lied by NSW.

Queens­land premier An­nasta­cia Palaszczuk this week said her state’s bor­der was likely to re­main closed un­til Septem­ber.

The Aus­tralian in­fight­ing may make New Zealand’s ap­petite to re­open largely aca­demic.

New Na­tional Party leader

‘‘Hope­fully we can get some money in the bank and sur­vive the win­ter.’’

Ro­torua Canopy Tours gen­eral man­ager Paul But­ton

Todd Muller said it was still ‘‘crit­i­cally im­por­tant’’ that tourism re­sumed with Aus­tralia as quickly as pos­si­ble, but we also needed to con­sider broad­en­ing the bub­ble.

‘‘It’s to­tally ap­pro­pri­ate that Aus­tralia is our num­ber one pri­or­ity, but con­cur­rently we need to be think­ing around ‘so how do we open up to China, what does that look like? What do the con­di­tions need to be that gives both coun­tries con­fi­dence that peo­pleto-peo­ple en­gage­ment should start’?’’

He said the Gov­ern­ment needed to be far more trans­par­ent with New Zealand about when and how the borders would re­open.

‘‘It’s all very well to sig­nal that they think this is an area that needs to be pri­ori­tised, but we need to get clar­ity around what the con­di­tions are to have it en­abled – and that’s not clear.’’

While agri­cul­ture ex­ports were do­ing well, most other ex­porters were do­ing it tough, said Muller.

‘‘I’m not go­ing to wade in and try to pick a month a day or a week that it should hap­pen. I should just say that if I was prime min­is­ter this would be an ex­tremely ur­gent pri­or­ity.’’

Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern wasn’t avail­able for com­ment yes­ter­day, but has pre­vi­ously said the bor­der could open un­der level 2.

‘‘What we are an­tic­i­pat­ing now is that our of­fi­cials and our teams are work­ing re­spec­tively on get­ting our own houses in or­der at the bor­der, ready to go for a time when both sides of the Tas­man feel com­fort­able that we’re ready to see that travel re­sume,’’ Ardern said.

Di­rec­tor-Gen­eral of Health Ash­ley Bloomfield has said the Gov­ern­ment will nei­ther rec­om­mend nor re­quire the use of face masks. He said this week ev­i­dence of their ef­fi­cacy was ‘‘in the bal­ance’’.

At the award-win­ning tourism op­er­a­tor Ro­torua Canopy Tours, gen­eral man­ager Paul But­ton said that af­ter a dif­fi­cult pe­riod dur­ing lock­down, when they had to re­struc­ture, los­ing 85 per cent of their work­force, there were some pos­i­tive signs ahead.

They’re re­open­ing the busi­ness next week in ac­cor­dance with level 2 guide­lines, and took $5500 worth of book­ings in their first few hours.

Around a quar­ter of Canopy Tours’ busi­ness came from the Aus­tralian mar­ket. And But­ton be­lieves num­bers will start to re­turn only when gov­ern­ments give clear sig­nals that it’s safe to travel.

‘‘We’re go­ing to re­open tours next week. With the level 2 guide­lines we be­lieve we can de­liver our prod­uct safely. Hope­fully we can get some money in the bank and sur­vive the win­ter.

‘‘A huge por­tion of peo­ple have taken a fi­nan­cial king-hit, but there are also a lot of un­af­fected peo­ple.’’

If both gov­ern­ments en­cour­aged tourists to travel, he be­lieves there would be pent-up de­mand.

‘‘And if Air NZ come to the party with some good rates to get ev­ery­body mov­ing it will en­cour­age spend­ing and that will flow through the econ­omy.’’

The ski sea­son has fig­ured promi­nently in con­ver­sa­tions about a re­open­ing, with many op­er­a­tors in des­per­ate need of cashed-up Aus­tralians re­turn­ing to the slopes.

Jono Dean, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Ruapehu Alpine Lifts, NZSki CEO Paul An­der­son and Cardrona Alpine Re­sorts gen­eral man­ager Brid­get Leg­navsky have been work­ing with the Gov­ern­ment to clar­ify how ski re­sorts will op­er­ate un­der level 2 re­quire­ments.

Dean, whose firm runs Turoa and Whaka­papa ski fields, said that although only 10 per cent of Mt Ruapehu’s vis­i­tors are from Aus­tralia, the pro­posed tran­sTas­man bub­ble is vi­tal to the re­cov­ery of New Zealand tourism in gen­eral.

‘‘And of course Mt Ruapehu would wel­come any Aus­tralian skiers and sight­seers, which would prob­a­bly be to­wards the end of the win­ter ski sea­son and into the sum­mer sight­see­ing sea­son.’’

AP (left); ROSS GIBLIN/STUFF

Todd Muller with wife Michelle. Right: Pro­fes­sor Michael Baker.

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