New Zealand / Covid 19

Kiwis stuck in Melbourne Covid-19 lockdown relieved they can get home

09:00 am on 4 June 2021

New Zealanders stuck in Melbourne are breathing a sigh of relief that the end of their extended holiday in Covid-19 lockdown is in sight.

People queue for a Covid-19 test in Melbourne. Photo: AFP

The government has pushed out the travel pause with Victoria for another six days as Melbourne starts a second a week of restrictions to stamp out the virus.

But it is stepping in with special arrangements to get stranded people home on quarantine-free "green flights" from 9 June.

Anne Spratt and her husband, who hadn't seen their granddaughter in more than a year, had no regrets about travelling to Melbourne when they were first caught out by the lockdown.

However, another week was wearing thin.

"Being in lockdown in a place that is not your own is difficult no matter how comfortable and loving and welcoming it is, it is still not your own home and that's the hardest part I think," she said.

The news that there will be quarantine-free flights back home from Wednesday has come as a relief.

"Knowing there's an end, whether its Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, I don't mind, but knowing that at some point we are going to climb on a plane is very nice," she said.

Travel on the flights will be limited to New Zealand citizens and permanent residents, Australian citizens normally resident in New Zealand, people with humanitarian exemptions and critical workers who are stranded in Victoria.

Kim Tairi, a librarian from Tāmaki Makaurau, said the first flight home she could get was 11 June.

"I've been really fortunate that I've had whānau to stay with here. A lot of people in the Melbourne lockdown don't have circumstances quite as good as mine."

She had been aware of the risks when she flew to Melbourne on 14 May to meet her first mokopuna, born last year. She made arrangements with her employer and took a laptop in case she had to work remotely.

"I won't take for granted how fantastic we have it in Aotearoa in terms of being in level 1 and being able to be at work and be in the office with my colleagues."

Those wanting to travel back from Melbourne next week need a pre-departure Covid-19 test 72 hours or less before their flight and must declare they have not been at any of the locations of interest linked to the outbreak.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said they would not have to do a fortnight stay in managed isolation.

"Based on the public risk assessments of what is happening in Melbourne now, the fact all of the cases that they've got are linked to one another just reinforces the view and the public health advice that the risk there is low," he said.

Hipkins said work was underway with the Australian government to make sure people can get their pre-departure test easily and travel to the airport.

Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said the green flight rules showed the government here is taking a cautious approach.

He said New Zealand only had to look at countries like Taiwan to realise how quickly things can change.

"It should be quite a warning for Australia and New Zealand that we have to keep working very hard to sustain this elimination status.

"I think it is very doable, but we just have to keep learning from the experience of our own countries and other countries," he said.

Baker said the requirement for people to test negative before they boarded a plane to New Zealand would reassure the population at home and was an "extra layer of security."

"I think this will make a lot of New Zealanders a lot more comfortable," he said.

The government will review the travel pause again on Wednesday.

Returning travellers pose very low risk - Bloomfield

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield is confident New Zealanders returning from Melbourne pose little risk.

By next Wednesday greater Melbourne will have been in rigorous lockdown for two weeks and it was reassuring that the new cases being identified each day are linked to existing cases, he told Morning Report.

The pre-departure tests that each traveller will have to undergo will provide an extra safeguard.

Dr Bloomfield said officials looked at insisting on a period of self-isolation and having another test after arrival in New Zealand but decided it was unnecessary because they have been in lockdown in Victoria.

The pre-departure Covid-19 test would provide "a high level of reassurance that the risk is very very low".

"I think that process [contact tracing] is working really well" - Director General of health Ashley Bloomfield

It has required special permission from the Victorian authorities for the people to be allowed to travel to the airport - that is why the flights are being limited to New Zealand citizens, permanent residents, Australians normally resident in New Zealand and essential workers.

He maintained his confidence in the country's contact tracing system. Trans-Tasman travellers now have to enter contact details in a new database before their flights and that data can be instantly matched up with the contact tracing system.

Once the Victoria lockdown was announced, officials were able to reach out to more than 4500 people who had recently returned from the state.

It was revealed yesterday that two new flights to New Zealand had been automatically categorised as red zone, so those travellers had not been contacted last week.

Once this was realised all 177 travellers had been contacted, Dr Bloomfield said.

"It was a manual system - it's now going to be automated so that the flights will be automatically categorised.

"I think that process is working really well and we are now at a point where every single person has been able to be contacted and we're just working on those we know we can confirm have returned to Australia."

Dr Bloomfield was also asked about the revelation that just over 60 percent of a group labelled high risk are yet to be vaccinated. They are family members of border workers. He believes the figure will not be that high because some will not have identified themselves as such when they have been vaccinated.

As far as group four in the vaccine rollout is concerned, which is the bulk of New Zealanders, he said the programme is still on track to begin in the last week of July. A further announcement on vaccine supply is due early next week.

Travel risk

Insurance and Financial Ombudsman Karen Stevens said insurance policies typically excluded pandemic-related disruption and "government directives" such as a declaring a border closures.

Insurance was designed to cover unforseen circumstances, whereas the Australian and New Zealand had made clear they may have to close of travel bubble at any time.

"The people who are chosing to travel are taking the risk that might happen. It's a known event. While it might not happen it has been highlighted as a real risk that the borders will close and therefore any costs attributed to either alternative accommodation or changing flights will be a matter for the person travelling, it won't be a matter either for the government or the travel insurer."

Most policies would not cover repatriation or medical expenses if a person contracted Covid-19.

"Anything that is related to Covid - and sometimes there's wording like directly or indirectly - will in most travel policies be excluded" - Ombudman Karen Stevens

"However, if you were in Australia and ... your luggage went missing and it's not Covid-related, then you'd be covered. If you had another medical event and it wasn't a pre-existing condition and it wasn't related to Covid you would probably be covered."

The Ombudsman has received 230 mainly travel-related insurance complaints following border closures last year, but most were rejected.

Anybody considering going to Australia within the travel bubble needed to be prepared to take the risk themselves, she said.