Australia, New Zealand Work to Open Borders to Each Other

SYDNEY/WELLINGTON (Reuters) -
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. (Reuters/Loren Elliott)

Australia and New Zealand said on Tuesday that efforts to resume travel between the two countries would take some time, as they cautiously reopen their mostly shuttered economies after containing outbreaks of the coronavirus.

Australia and New Zealand have for more than a month closed their borders to all non-citizens and imposed mandatory quarantines on anyone returning home from overseas.

Both countries have a COVID-19 mortality rate of just 1%, well below most other countries, with the number of new cases just a fraction of their March peaks.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said travel across the Tasman Sea between the neighbors would be the first international route restarted and would likely begin around the time domestic air travel restarts in earnest. “When we are seeing Australians travel from Melbourne to Cairns, at about that time I would expect, everything being equal, we would be able to fly from Melbourne to Auckland,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who on Tuesday became the first world leader to join an Australian Cabinet meeting in more than 60 years, said the move would take some time to work through.

“When we feel comfortable and confident that we both won’t receive cases from Australia, but equally that we won’t export them, then that will be the time to move,” Ardern told reporters in Wellington after attending the meeting via video with Australian ministers as well as state and territory leaders.

“Neither of us want cases of COVID coming between our countries.”

Australia has recorded around 6,800 infections and 96 deaths, and New Zealand 1,137 cases and 20 fatalities. Rules on social distancing have been eased slightly in New Zealand and in some Australian states and territories but restrictions on large gatherings and nonessential travel remain.

New Zealand recorded no new coronavirus cases for a second day in a row on Tuesday and Ardern has vowed to completely eliminate the pathogen from the country of almost five million people.

Qantas Airways Ltd. Chief Executive Alan Joyce said regular flights between Australia and New Zealand could begin soon after domestic routes were reopened.

“It could be a very good model for the international market opening up in phases,” the chief of Australia’s largest airline told reporters.

Qantas is currently operating only 5% of its precrisis domestic passenger network and 1% of its international network.

Reopening the travel route would be a major boon for both countries as strict social distancing restrictions severely crimp both economies.

Australia may have lost almost a million jobs between mid-March and mid-April as large chunks of the economy shut down in the fight against the coronavirus, according to new figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Canberra has unveiled economic support measures worth about A$320 billion ($206 billion) or about 16% of GDP, as restrictions on public movement push the country toward its first recession in nearly 30 years.

The Reserve Bank of Australia forecast the world’s 12th-biggest economy would suffer its largest ever contraction in the first half of the year, sending the unemployment rate into double-digits, but held out the hope of a recovery as the coronavirus was contained.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the economic impact from the pandemic would have been a lot worse if Australia had followed Europe’s example and imposed stricter controls on all nonessential services.

“If these restrictions were increased even further, akin to the eight-week lockdown in Europe, then the adverse economic impact on GDP could double to 24%, or A$120 billion, in the June quarter,” the treasurer said in prepared remarks.

“This was the cliff we were standing on.”