Australia has reopened its “travel bubble” with New Zealand after the neighbouring country reported no new locally acquired COVID-19 cases for four days.
The decision on Sunday marks the resumption of the only international arrivals to Australia who do not require 14 days in hotel quarantine.
Australia had paused quarantine exemptions for trans-Tasman arrivals on January 25 after New Zealand reported its first new case in months.
No other community cases had been reported since the woman’s case was disclosed on January 24 and authorities said the source of the infection was probably a fellow returnee at the quarantine facility.
Arrivals from New Zealand “are now judged to be sufficiently low risk, given New Zealand’s strong public health response to COVID-19”, Australia’s Acting Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd told reporters.
However, Australia would require screening of travellers from New Zealand before and after flights for the next 10 days, Kidd added, “given there is still a small risk of further associated cases being detected and with an abundance of caution”.
The travel bubble is a one-way arrangement at the moment, with Australia hoping New Zealand will reciprocate in the coming months.
Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, said last week that her country’s borders were likely to “be impacted for much of this year”.
She added, “For travel to restart, we need one of two things: We either need the confidence that being vaccinated means you don’t pass COVID-19 on to others – and we don’t know that yet, or we need enough of our population to be vaccinated and protected that people can safely re-enter New Zealand. Both possibilities will take some time.”
New Zealand has been widely praised for its handling of the pandemic with just 25 deaths from 1,927 confirmed virus cases in a population of five million.
Meanwhile, Australia – which has closed its borders to all countries but New Zealand since March 2020 – marked on Sunday two weeks without a locally acquired case of the virus, which has infected 29,000 in the country and killed 909.
The country is now planning a vaccination programme starting in late February.
On Sunday, Minister for Health Greg Hunt said the government would invite the country’s roughly 5,800 community pharmacies this week to apply for a federally-funded programme to pay them to administer inoculations, along with doctors and hospital health workers.
“That means more points of presence for Australians in terms of where they can receive their COVID-19 vaccine,” Hunt said.
“This is potentially life-saving medication. The medicines can work with differing degrees of effectiveness, but all up, this can improve lives, extend lives, or save lives.”
The government plans to start vaccinating priority groups like older and Indigenous Australians with a shot developed by Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE from late February.
The plan also involves a vaccine developed by AstraZeneca Plc and the University of Oxford, although that product has not yet been approved by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration. Pharmacists involved in the programme would receive training to administer the AstraZeneca vaccine, with first shots planned in May, Hunt said.