New Zealand to send team to investigate Cook Islands travel bubble

New Zealand is inching closer towards establishing its first travel bubble, with the prime minister announcing a reconnaissance team will be heading to the Cook Islands on Saturday.

If the trip goes smoothly a travel bubble could be established within a fortnight, the PM said.

The news came as Jacinda Ardern held her first post-cabinet press conference since being re-elected in a landslide victory in the general election in October.

The Cook Islands has been declared Covid-19 free, and has been pleading for a travel bubble for months, saying its economy is being decimated by the complete lack of tourism – the main driver of its small economy.

“The hard truth is that if this drags on much longer, we’ll be coming to you for help one way or the other,” said Fletcher Melvin, the chair of the Cook Islands private sector taskforce in July, addressing the New Zealand government. “Our community wants a hand, not a handout – we’d much rather have New Zealand tourism dollars than its aid money.”

New Zealand has been pursuing a Covid-elimination strategy and has been reluctant to open its borders to anyone, including the Pacific Islands, after shutting them in mid-March.

Governments across the Pacific also hold concerns that if the virus were to gain a significant foothold in the region it could devastate island communities, which have limited public health infrastructure, and populations with high rates of comorbidities such as diabetes.

Related: Australian PM pushes for quarantine-free travel bubble with New Zealand by Christmas

Meanwhile, Ardern again seemed to splash cold water ona travel bubble with Australia in the near future, saying her government had concerns about how the threshold of community transmission in Australia.

The prime minister said it was her understanding that a community spread alert was not raised in Australia until 10 or more cases had appeared for three consecutive days – a threshold that seemed “very high” to New Zealand.

“We have an elimination strategy and something like 10 cases a day would be indicative of a much wider problem,” Ardern said. “So that’s what we have to be concerned with.”

The prime minister said she last spoke to her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison ten days ago, following her election win, and was seeking clarity on a number of points before the trans-Tasman bubble progressed at all.

Currently, Australia allows New Zealanders to enter a number of its states, but the arrangement is not reciprocal, and all New Zealanders who choose to visit Australia must enter managed isolation for two weeks on arrival back in New Zealand.

New Zealand’s borders remain closed to all nationalities, including Australian citizens

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