OPINION: The water temperature in Rarotonga’s emerald lagoon is just under 25 degrees at the moment. But what arrived from Wellington on Tuesday morning was a bucket of ice-cold reality.
To recap, a beaming Deputy Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, Mark Brown, turned up on the AM Show to tell us an “air bridge” between our two countries would be announced within the week.
The trouble is, that was news to our Prime Minister. Just four hours later, Ardern’s office rebuked it as “very premature.”
It appears the Cook Islands was getting impatient with New Zealand’s reticence to open our border, and had been planning to make an announcement anyway.
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The scheme would have seen New Zealanders able to travel to the Cook Islands for six months, although they would have been required to quarantine on arrival back into Auckland.
That would have been concerning for our Government on several fronts. Firstly, the obvious question is who would pay for quarantine on return to New Zealand? It’s a contentious issue, where the Government is seeking legal advice on whether it can even make a charge mandatory.
The second issue is one of perception. Would our Government be seen as being unfair to the Cook Islands, if they were going at it alone? Many Kiwis believe a bubble should happen now, but of course, they don’t bear the responsibility if it goes wrong.
There is also the added complexity of Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters wanting certain travel bubbles as soon as possible, while the Prime Minister remains much more cautious.
It could have all got a little messy if the Cook Islands went ahead and announced their scheme, without our Government coming to the party.
So, a call between Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Cook Islands counterpart was made ahead of Monday’s scheduled announcement. Ardern was successful; the Cook Islands wouldn’t announce their scheme, but it appears the promise of a timetable was made.
Somehow, the Cooks’ Deputy PM has interpreted that timetable as meaning flights would be announced “within the next week.”
Ardern’s office called that “very premature.”
It’s understood any Pacific travel bubble will first involve essential workers and those needing medical treatment to the test system, before looking to extend to recreational travellers.
Expect that announcement before the election. But the Government will be particularly risk-averse in the weeks before polling day, so leisure flights may not take off until October.
What’s certain from all of this is that the prospect of a trans-Tasman bubble is now cryogenically frozen, to be thawed when Australia has its case numbers under control. The virus is running rampant in Victoria, with the state yesterday reporting 270 new cases, and New South Wales is dealing with fresh cases of community transmission.
The idea, instead, to deal with Australia “state by state” is fanciful. That’s because inter-state travel is already happening in Australia.
Even Tasmania, which has been floated as a potential air link, may begin opening its interstate borders later this month.
The suggestion we could pick the healthiest state and just deal with them doesn’t make sense, because interstate travel will only accelerate as Australia looks to get its domestic economy moving.
What’s clear is Rarotonga is now first in line for a travel bubble. But don’t go packing the togs just yet – flights are still likely months away.