Australia eyes travel bubbles with Asia amid controversy

Singapore, S. Korea, Japan among potential partners despite setback to bubble with NZ

Passengers from New Zealand at Sydney Airport in New South Wales state on Oct 16, the day that Australia's travel bubble with New Zealand came into effect. The arrangement proved controversial after some passengers flew on to states outside the bubbl
Passengers from New Zealand at Sydney Airport in New South Wales state on Oct 16, the day that Australia's travel bubble with New Zealand came into effect. The arrangement proved controversial after some passengers flew on to states outside the bubble.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

A new travel bubble that allows New Zealanders to enter parts of Australia without quarantining has run into problems after arrivals quickly travelled to regions outside the bubble.

Australia's first travel bubble came into effect on Oct 16 after New South Wales, the country's most populous state, and Northern Territory decided to allow people to visit from New Zealand without having to undergo the usual 14-day quarantine.

But the arrangement proved controversial after people began flying in from New Zealand and then travelled on to other states.

The move angered leaders of the other states, who said they had not agreed to allow people from New Zealand to enter.

Mr Daniel Andrews, premier of Victoria state, wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison to express his chagrin after 17 people from New Zealand landed in Sydney in New South Wales and promptly flew on to Melbourne in Victoria.

Victoria is emerging from one of the world's longest lockdowns as it tries to defeat a second wave of Covid-19 cases.

"We're disappointed this has happened," Mr Andrews said. "It is exactly the opposite of what we signed up for."

The federal government hit back, saying Victoria was aware of the travel arrangements and could have imposed measures to bar access to people from New Zealand.

Other states also expressed anger and moved to quarantine travellers who entered from New Zealand.

The state of South Australia initially put some 12 arrivals from New Zealand on 14-day quarantine, but released them this week after assessing that they posed no risk. The state has now become the third territory in Australia to join the travel bubble.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has not agreed to waive quarantine requirements for those arriving from Australia, meaning that the travel bubble is one-way only.

Australian state and federal leaders have urged Ms Ardern to let New Zealand join the travel bubble, though she has so far resisted. New Zealand is mostly free of community-transmitted Covid-19 cases after imposing stringent measures, including a strict lockdown.

Mr Steven Marshall, premier of South Australia, said he has written to Ms Ardern to request reciprocal arrangements, noting that his state - unlike New South Wales - has no Covid-19 community transmission.

He said Air New Zealand had indicated that it could resume flights between New Zealand's Auckland city and Adelaide, capital of South Australia, within weeks if quarantine arrangements were lifted.

"There are still examples of community transmission in New South Wales; there aren't in South Australia, so I've laid out the case for South Australia having different arrangements to other parts of the country," said Mr Marshall.

Mr Morrison said last Friday that he believed the travel bubble with New Zealand was now working well, noting that he had just met state and territory leaders and none of them had raised any concerns.

"I'm pleased with how that is proceeding," he told reporters. "There were no issues raised about that today, so that's good."

Mr Morrison said this month that Australia would consider opening travel bubbles with Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Pacific island nations. He and Australia's Foreign Minister Marise Payne had discussed safe travel arrangements with the leaders of countries across the region, he said.

Earlier this month, Singapore began allowing travellers from Australia - aside from those from Victoria - to enter without undergoing the usual quarantine requirements.

Qantas, Australia's national carrier, said last Friday that it was prioritising resumption of flights to Asia amid hopes that travel bubbles could soon be established.

But it added that it did not expect normal travel to the United States or the United Kingdom to resume until a vaccine was in place because of the serious outbreaks in those countries.

The airline's chairman Richard Goyder said at the company's annual general meeting: "By early next year, we may find that (South) Korea, Taiwan and various islands in the Pacific are top Qantas destinations while we wait for our core international markets like the US and UK to reopen."

Mr Morrison said last Friday that he could not give a set timetable for future travel bubbles. "The quarantine issues... that's the first thing you've got to resolve."

But he added: "We're already moving forward to try to solve these problems, so we can be proactive about this."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2020, with the headline 'Australia eyes travel bubbles with Asia amid controversy'. Subscribe