Australia and New Zealand’s agreement on quarantine-free travel marks a new chapter for the two antipodean nations, but risks for travellers remain

More than a year after shutting the New Zealand border to keep the Covid-19 pandemic at bay, prime minister Jacinda Ardern last month outlined plans for a “trans-Tasman bubble” with Australia, to begin on 19 April. 

The agreement between the South Pacific nation and its neighbour marks the first time that people will be able to arrive in New Zealand without a spell in managed isolation quarantine facilities.

New Zealand has enforced stricter rules than its antipodean cousin throughout the pandemic, with Kiwis allowed to travel quarantine-free to Australia for several months.

Ardern said the “trans-Tasman bubble” marked “a new chapter” in the recovery from the Covid pandemic and would boost tourism operators as well as benefiting families and business travellers.

Zero COVID strategy

After a year in isolation from the world, the two nations have begun to open up to one another. Despite being lauded for their handling of the pandemic internationally, largely eliminating the virus, both Australia and New Zealand have been hit by unexpected community outbreaks in recent months.

Last month, the city of Brisbane was put into lockdown for three days due to a Covid-outbreak linked to a managed isolation facility. Other Australian states have been quick to put up borders during outbreaks, restricting internal travel and freedom of movement at short notice to protect their citizens and pursue a “zero COVID” strategy.

Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, has also been hit with outbreaks. The city of one million residents last came out of lockdown last month, its third regional lockdown, as New Zealand pursues its aggressive elimination strategy. The decision to close down the highly-populated city was also made at short notice.

Risks remain that either country could impose lockdowns, leaving overseas citizens stranded and unable to travel home. Ardern, upon announcing the new bubble, cautioned that it would be a case of “flyer beware”.

Flyer beware

While the Australasian nations remain among the safest places to be in the world during the pandemic, risk managers believe organisations should be cautious around business travel and accessing the trans-Tasman bubble.

Simon Levy, chief executive of the Risk Management Institute of Australasia (RMIA), welcomes the bubble as a “significant step in the response and recovery to Covid-19” but cautioned that companies looking for a return to normality must be mindful of the pandemic threat.

“The risk of snap lockdowns remains on both sides of the Tasman,” Levy says. “Our Australasian members have ridden the peaks and troughs of the last 16 months, guiding their organisations through these challenges. I’m confident this won’t change as risk is embedded into everyday practices from work, transport, sporting events and social gatherings.

Levy said corporate risk managers must have thorough mitigation plans in place, working across HR channels and risk management functions: “It will require a little more planning ahead than what has occurred historically.”

“The prudent step would be to work with HR or OHS teams, reviewing and revising travel policies, ensuring that adequate provision is made for cancellations, increased time of travel and the potential reduced capacity of flights, venues and hotels.

“In the event of snap lockdowns, businesses will need to know where their staff are, and have established and tested processes in place to bring employees home at short notice. Budgets should be reviewed in line with provisions for emergency repatriation, accommodation or in worst cases, quarantine.”

Levy believes it’s an opportune time to review insurance relationships.

“Risk managers should have a close working relationship with their broker; they will help you understand policy wording, limits and responses times. In conjunction with your broker, run some scenario analysis and stress tests to determine how the travel insurance policy or business interruption policy will respond in each different scenario. Integrate the outcomes of this with your organisations’ internal travel policies – and communicate clearly and concisely with employees,” Levy adds.

Duty of care

Australia-based risk consultant Eamonn Cunningham believes inherent risks remain with the bubble. Politics could play a role, with both national and state Governments ready to change their strategies and enforce lockdowns.

“At the heart of any travel bubble is the implicit concept of integrity, openness, and transparency as between the countries entering the arrangement. If there is any lack of openness and candour, then surely this will undermine the trust at each party places in each other. Of course, we are dealing with country-level arrangements here, and naturally, this brings with it associated politics.”

“What this means at an enterprise level is that you cannot totally guarantee that the recently announced travel bubble arrangement will endure,” he says.

Cunningham says the re-emergence of community transmission could throw the arrangement into chaos, while there were also question marks over the bureaucracy to keep the bubble running. He says some businesses are likely to be wary of travel.

“Businesses thrive on certainty, particularly in these times. They are sensitive to anything that may suggest uncertain times ahead. As a result, any companies that have to invest to take advantage of the newly announced travel bubble may find that day returns expected are not as secure as compared to what otherwise would be the case.”

Employee health safety remains paramount, but difficult to control, in a pandemic. Cunningham says organisations need to reassess their travel policies with the pandemic in mind.

“After more than 12 months of international travel restrictions, this is all new territory for organisations. A lot of work will have to be done here as companies are finding it challenging enough to affect a complete return to work regime, as a significant number of employees have got used to the notion of working from home. So, extending this further by adding in the dimension of travel, be it domestic or international, results in a lot more issues to address.

The devil is in the detail, and businesses will not be able to plan or forecast around the new free-travel arrangement until it is a proven success, Cunningam says.

“This notion is brand new, and I cannot see organisations confidently predicting increases in revenue as a result of this until an appropriate proving period without hiccup has passed,” Cunningham.