Jacinda Ardern could announce a starting date for Cook Islands travel bubble today
A two-way quarantine-free travel bubble with the Cook Islands may be announced today but only if the health response there is up to scratch.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will provide an update on progress with the bubble following her meeting with Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown in Auckland.
Even if director general of health Ashley Bloomfield signs off the health criteria for the bubble, it wouldn’t start immediately – but Ardern and Brown could announce a starting date.
Caution over the bubble starting has centred over the lack of health infrastructure there, and how quickly the health system would be overwhelmed in an outbreak.
The measles epidemic in Samoa in 2019 and the number of escalating daily Covid-19 cases in Papua New Guinea this month underline the risk of exporting the virus to the Cooks Islands.
The Herald understands that the key boxes still waiting to be ticked include contact-tracing capability and the regular testing of border workers in the Cook Islands.
Yesterday the Cook Islands launched the CookSafe+ app, developed by Rush Digital RUSH, which created the NZ Covid Tracer app with New Zealand’s Ministry of Health. It will be available to Cook Islands residents and to Kiwis visiting the islands.
A PCR testing lab to trace and test air passengers arriving on Rarotonga – another condition of the bubble – is also set to open in mid-April.
Concerns over health infrastructure can also be mitigated by a vaccination roll-out to the Cook Islands, which New Zealand would run.
Ardern has previously said New Zealand had secured enough vaccines for all of New Zealand as well as the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu.
Passengers from the Cook Islands have been able to travel to New Zealand quarantine-free since the end of January but the Government has been concerned about the risk of travellers taking Covid there.
A starting date for a two-way bubble would be greeted with open arms by the Cook Islands, which have been crying out for tourists to ease the economic pains of the pandemic.
“We’re really excited and itching to get this done,” Cook Islands private sector taskforce chairman Fletcher Melvin told the Herald earlier this month.
“We’ve been trying to get it for some time and certainly all the hotels and resorts which are empty will be looking forward to getting business back to some sort of normality.”
Yesterday Brown, writing in the Cook Islands News, said the economic situation had become so dire that Cook Islands people were emigrating to New Zealand.
“If the tourists are not able to bring money into our country, then our workers will go and look for that money overseas. Some have already left, recruited by New Zealand companies in need of labour.
“Similarly, some of our business owners have been forced to take jobs in New Zealand while their businesses are either in hibernation or closed for good. This is a real concern.”
Ardern has been increasingly under pressure over quarantine-free travel zones.
On Monday she announced criteria that had to be met before a transtasman bubble could open, and said she would reveal a starting date for the bubble on April 6.
Many in the tourism sector, including the Tourism Industry Association and Wellington Airport, were disappointed that she didn’t announce a starting date, while the National Party said it was almost comedic to hear an announcement about an announcement.
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