Australia and New Zealand discuss possible trans-Tasman 'travel bubble'

SYDNEY/WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand and Australia are discussing the potential creation of a “travel bubble” between the two countries, even as Australia on Monday reported its highest number of coronavirus cases in two weeks.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she has accepted an invite from Australian Premier Scott Morrison to take part in a meeting of Australia’s emergency coronavirus cabinet on Tuesday, stoking anticipation of a travel deal.

The neighbouring countries have claimed success in substantially slowing the progress of the coronavirus epidemic to a level well below the United States, Britain and Europe.

Still, Ardern warned that more health measures needed to be put in place before trans-Tasman travel could restart.

“I wouldn’t say it would be in the very, very near short term,” Ardern said at a news conference in Wellington.

“Don’t expect this to happen in a couple of weeks time. We need to make sure we are locking in the gains all New Zealanders have helped us achieve and make sure we have health precautions in place.”

Australia has recorded around 6,800 infections and 96 deaths, and New Zealand 1,137 cases and 20 fatalities. Both have a COVID-19 mortality rate of just 1% and have maintained low single digit rises in new cases for weeks, successes they attribute to social distancing regulations and widespread testing.

“Both our countries’ strong record of fighting the virus has placed us in the enviable position of being able to plan the next stage in our economic rebuild and to include trans-Tasman travel and engagement in our strategy,” Ardern said.

A New Zealand rugby league team arrived in Australia on Sunday to self-isolate for two weeks before joining Australia’s tournament later this month, after receiving special permission.

The leaders will discuss ongoing measures to prevent the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 infections as they start to ease restrictions that have shut businesses and hobbled their economies.

Australia on Monday reported 27 cases, including a seven-year-old boy, in its biggest daily jump in two weeks. That could rise as more states report throughout the day. New Zealand recorded no new cases on Monday for the first time since March 16.

New Zealand does not have a contact tracing app like the one launched by Australia last week to find and inform people who have been in contact with confirmed infected people.

About 4.5 million Australians have downloaded the CovidSafe app so far, well short of Morrison’s previously announced target of 40% of the country’s estimated 16 million smartphone owners.

Morrison has made wider adoption of the app a prerequisite to further ease strict social distancing regulations in Australia.

SCHOOLS DEBATE

The rise in Australia’s death toll was largely due to an outbreak at a meat processing plant in the state of Victoria.

The infection of the seven-year-old boy in New South Wales (NSW) state, which closed his Sydney school, has drawn attention to the contentious question of whether children should attend school during the outbreak.

The federal government has said schools should stay open since children are low-risk carriers of the virus, while some state governments have urged parents to keep children at home.

NSW will reopen schools on a staggered basis from next week, while Victoria has asked parents to keep children at home until the middle of the year.

The states and territories are also moving at different speeds to lift movement restrictions: NSW has allowed people to make house visits in groups of up to two, while Victoria is retaining its stay-home order until at least May 11.

“This is a struggle and … it’s not easy to live this way, but none of us can assume, just because we’re frustrated, that this is over,” Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters on Monday. “This is far from over. We have to stay the course.”

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