Tuesday 11 August 2020

Borders and Bubbles

There's no Covid on the Cook Islands. But isolation-free travel into New Zealand from the Cooks looks to be a long way off. 

The Prime Minister confirmed on Monday that Cabinet had considered draft text being worked on via officials which will become the basis of an agreement for quarantine-free travel between the Cook Islands and New Zealand.

"That draft text is near conclusion," Ardern told reporters. "The next phase will be the verification phase; that is where we have officials on both sides who undertake work on the ground to assure ourselves that we're meeting the expectations on both sides."

Ardern said the Government's expectation is that there will be travel between officials undertaking that verification work within about the next 10 days.

She said the third phase will be the finalising of details. The Government will get advice form the Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield and the Government will then confirm with the Cook Islands administration if travel can go ahead.

"Whilst we haven't put a timeframe around the reopening at this stage, our expectation is that it would be in place before the end of the year," Ardern said.

"We haven't wanted to give dates beyond that while we're still undertaking that verification work and that's on both sides - both for the Cook Islands and for New Zealand."

It's important that we don't send Covid into the Cooks. And it's important that New Zealand help the Cooks ensure that their testing is up to scratch and that nothing's getting in via their ports.

But I don't quite get why NZ couldn't start admitting visitors from the Cooks now without isolation, with an explicit warning to all travellers that restrictions could be imposed at short notice should an outbreak happen in either place. 

Here's what MFAT has to say about the Cook Islands in general:

Cook Islands is located between French Polynesia and American Samoa. It is self-governing in ‘free association’ with New Zealand. That means that while it administers its own affairs, Cook Islanders are New Zealand citizens who are free to live and work here. More than 80,000 Cook Island Māori live in New Zealand.

There is no Covid in the Cooks. Those who live there are New Zealand citizens. If it's going to be months before travel normalisation can happen, how long might it be before a travel bubble with Taiwan is possible?

Way back in March, Balaji Srinivasan started talking about red zone / green zone options. Areas that have stamped out the virus could start linking up and re-normalising travel arrangements within that green zone, while implementing strict controls at borders to the red zone to keep it out. 

Green zones would never be set in stone but contingent: if situations changed, controls could be reimposed. If the Cooks started getting very sloppy at their maritime ports, New Zealand could help them tighten things up and could reimpose travel restrictions if it looked like cases could have gotten in. 

The green zone would expand to include other Covid-free places where we could trust the stats and trust in that border controls would keep things out. We could start admitting visitors from Taiwan on direct flights tomorrow without quarantine - the risk imposed by a traveller arriving in Auckland from Taiwan is about the same as the risk imposed by a traveller from Invercargill arriving in Auckland. 

Where it would go from there would have to depend on what the epidemiologists would say. Maybe travel to Tasmania could be reinstated - they have zero active cases.

Every country or region that could safely join the green zone would mean one small but important bit of freedom being restored. Border controls like New Zealand has now aren't good in their own right. They're terrible. They're only defensible because they avoid something even worse: a renewed outbreak. 

But when we're talking about travel between places that are safe, by people who have not been outside of the green zone, travel restrictions only do harm. Managed isolation requirements at best in those cases only increase the cost of travel. More likely, the scarcity of spaces in Managed Isolation and Quarantine means travel is effectively forbidden - despite that that travel is not risky. 

As I put it in this week's column in the Dom Post:

The system obviously is not working.

It has too little capacity and cannot find any reasonable way of reconciling the conflicting demands of tens of thousands of people desperate to get here.

It puts people into queues for managed isolation who, because they come from places without Covid like Taiwan or the Cook Islands, have no business taking up scarce spaces in those facilities. Isolation requirements for those travellers only do harm.

And safety protocols have been slipshod.

Managed isolation of those entering New Zealand from risky places is obviously critically important in keeping the country safe until effective treatment or a vaccine is available. Strict safety standards are essential.

But none of that requires the Government to be handling all of the bookings, or decide who should get which scarce spaces.

This isn't some dumb health vs economy thing. Preventing another outbreak is good for both. But there are no health benefits in preventing people from Taiwan from coming to New Zealand. What good is done by this?

I don't know whether there are any particular economic gains from re-establishing normal travel arrangements with Taiwan. But I do know that a traveller coming here on a direct flight from Taiwan imposes no harm, and makes at least one person better off.

Over at BusinessDesk, Rebecca Stevenson covers the broader picture on managing managed isolation. Her piece includes a few bits from me, as well as noting the support of former Prime Ministers Clark and Key for improvements. As for Rob Campbell's quoted comments on the topic in that piece, well, I think SkyCity's track record on Covid speaks for itself.

Bottom lines:
  • Regardless of the economic benefits of any "green zone" among safe places, there is a pressing humanitarian case to stop limiting travel by people who do not impose risk. 
  • Safe protocols at the border for those coming from risky places are really important. The government's system for allocating scarce spaces will not be adequate for the long haul ahead.

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