A conference call of Australia’s cabinet last week had an unusual participant: the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern. She was invited to join the virtual meeting — the first New Zealand premier to do so since the second world war — to discuss the idea of a “trans-Tasman travel bubble” to enable travel and trade to resume between the two nations. There are particular reasons why such an arrangement makes sense for neighbours who share enviable records in controlling coronavirus. But the model might be applied elsewhere to speed the recovery of economic activity.
New Zealand and Australia have been among the world’s most successful developed economies in their antivirus efforts, limiting Covid-19 deaths to 21 and 97 respectively as of Monday. Ms Ardern, commendably, listened to scientific advisers, took a political decision to impose one of the world’s toughest lockdowns, implemented it well, and communicated in an empathetic manner. Australia’s authorities were criticised for mishandling a cruise ship outbreak. But they have an efficient test and trace regime, with an app using technology licensed from Singapore.
Strict border controls have contributed to both nations’ success; Australia has warned October is the earliest it might reopen to international travel, but arrivals would still need to quarantine for 14 days. Opening a trans-Tasman bubble is therefore a sensible option. Australia is New Zealand’s biggest source of tourists; New Zealanders are second only to the Chinese in Australia’s tourist market.
Wellington and Canberra say a safe travel zone could still be some way off, with work needed on testing and border protocols. Yet Ms Ardern has already talked about eventually extending the bubble to some Pacific Island nations with few or no cases of coronavirus. Other ministers have suggested it could be enlarged to Singapore or Taiwan, another virus containment success story that has said its borders will stay closed until a vaccine is found.
As economies emerge from lockdown, restoring travel and trade links as fast as it is safe to do so is essential to strengthen the recovery. While tourist and business travel might take time to return to pre-pandemic levels, a sizeable chunk of global freight also travels in the bellies of passenger aircraft. It is useful for countries at a similar stage in their pandemic recovery to create safe travel zones between them. These could initially be partial — applying to limited regions or types of travel. In time, zones could start to link together.
Trade ministers from Australia, Canada, South Korea, New Zealand and Singapore agreed last month on a multilateral effort to resume flows of goods, services and personnel. The plan would allow essential cross-border travel “on an exceptional basis” for purposes such as maintaining global supply chains. France has exempted arrivals from EU countries from a 14-day quarantine requirement for travellers from abroad; the UK, which is also planning a quarantine scheme, should consider doing likewise.
There are potential pitfalls. Safe zones might fray if one or more members push to open travel with a third country whose virus risk is higher — especially China, whose vast market exerts a powerful pull. Creating “bubbles” of rich countries risks exacerbating inequalities with poorer countries that are excluded. The sooner wealthier nations can restore economies to health, however, including by re-establishing trade links, the faster they can help the emerging world. A trans-Tasman bubble might seem a small start. But it could yet prove a first building block in something much bigger.