Australia plugs NZ travel bubble loophole that gave residents 'escape route' to other countries

The quarantine-free travel bubble between the two neighbours opened on April 18, 2021.
The quarantine-free travel bubble between the two neighbours opened on April 18, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY - Australia has tightened the rules for its new travel bubble with New Zealand after it emerged that travellers were using it to breach Canberra's strict travel restrictions and fly on to further destinations.

The quarantine-free travel bubble between the two neighbours opened on April 18, ending more than a year of restricted travel between them.

But the bubble also presented Australians with a loophole, offering an "escape route" through which they could flout the federal government's ban on travelling overseas.

Australia has some of the world's most stringent international travel restrictions, including a ban on leaving the country unless the traveller has received special exemption from the Australian Border Force (ABF).

Officials say exemptions are granted for reasons such as to attend a funeral or for work purposes. In the year to March 31, officials reportedly approved 134,758 of 281,630 exemption requests.

An Australian art teacher, Mr Tim Byrnes, was one of the first Australians to fly to New Zealand after the bubble opened but he then flew on to Russia, where he had been living and working since 2016.

"I've escaped," he told The Sun Herald. "I get to go back to my life."

Mr Byrnes said he had returned to Australia in January last year for a short visit. After the borders closed, he said, he applied for an exemption to return to Russia but was rejected.

The ABF said it could not prevent people flying on from New Zealand to other destinations but noted that Australians who did so would still need to undergo 14 days of quarantine when they return to Australia. In addition, many travellers will struggle to return to Australia, which has restricted numbers of incoming passengers.

"Those who travel onwards from New Zealand to another international destination must be aware that returning to Australia or New Zealand may be difficult due to the current restrictions on passenger numbers and the availability of flights," an ABF spokesman told The Australian Financial Review.

The federal government in Canberra has tightened the rules for the new travel bubble to try to ensure that people do not exploit it to travel beyond New Zealand. Those who break the rules reportedly face fines of up to A$63,000 (S$65,000) and jail terms of up to five years.

The government said travel beyond New Zealand - which, like Australia, is largely free of local Covid-19 transmission - poses a potential public health risk.

"Increasing the number of Australians overseas in countries that are not low-risk and who are wishing to return home... increases the likelihood of new cases being identified in quarantine facilities, and the potential risk of those cases leaching into the Australian community, causing localised outbreaks and transmission," the government said in an explanation of its new rules.

Australia's new bubble with New Zealand has prompted airlines to add extra flights and has raised hopes of further bubbles opening with countries such as Singapore and Taiwan, which have low rates of Covid-19 infections.

Hong Kong officials have also reportedly suggested that the Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble arrangements due to begin next month could potentially be replicated to enable bubbles with Australia and New Zealand.

But the Australia-New Zealand bubble encountered its first challenge late last week after Perth, in Western Australia, went into lockdown for three days after at least four locally transmitted Covid-19 cases were recorded.

New Zealand said it had "paused" travel to the state until its authorities provided further advice. The lockdown ended on Monday night (April 26) but face masks remain compulsory in the state until Saturday.  New Zealand will allow quarantine-free travel with Western Australia to resume from Wednesday.