New Zealand agrees on 'travel bubble' with Australia in early 2021

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand agreed on Monday to allow quarantine-free travel with Australia in the first quarter of 2021, nearly a year after it locked down its borders to protect its population from the novel coronavirus.

FILE PHOTO: A passenger arrives from New Zealand after the Trans-Tasman travel bubble opened overnight, following an extended border closure due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, at Sydney Airport in Sydney, Australia, October 16, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott/File Photo

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the cabinet had agreed in principle on a trans-Tasman, quarantine-free travel bubble pending confirmation by Australia’s cabinet and no significant change in circumstances in either country.

“It is our intention to name a date ... in the New Year once remaining details are locked down,” Ardern said at a news conference in the capital, Wellington.

New Zealand’s has virtually eliminated the novel coronavirus by enforcing a tough lockdown and keeping its borders shut to all foreigners for most of the year.

Ardern said more work was needed to ensure safe travel and New Zealand would move cautiously to finalise arrangements like managing airline crews.

A trans-Tasman travel bubble has been under discussion for months and many Australian regions have allowed New Zealanders in without quarantine requirements since October, but New Zealand had not reciprocated.

Australia also closed its international borders early in the pandemic and apart from New Zealanders, only allows returning Australians to fly in.

“This is a sign that New Zealand and Australia aren’t just working together but that families can be back together in both directions, friends can be back together in both directions and flights can be full in both directions,” Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters.

Hunt said the bubble was “good for the economy, good for our airlines and good for both countries” and the first step on a return to international normality.

Last week, New Zealand stuck its first pact on a reciprocal, quarantine-free travel bubble, agreeing to open up travel with the Cook Islands by March.

Ardern said progress on a novel coronavirus vaccine was nothing less than remarkable and everyone was as optimistic as possible for 2021.

When asked to describe 2020 in two words, she used one: “Horrendous”.

Reporting by Praveen Menon; additional reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel