Opening up Australia to international travel – All froth and no bubble!

Since April, a variety of coronavirus travel bubbles involving Australia have been mooted. But will any of them take off?

On May 28, the Smithsonian Magazine provided a ‘definition’.

“In a ‘travel bubble’ a set of countries agree to open their borders to each other, but keep borders to all other countries closed. So people can move freely within the bubble, but cannot enter from the outside … The idea is to allow people additional freedom without causing additional harm.”

Thus the countries in a bubble have to trust that all have coronavirus under control to the point they are willing to allow travel between any two countries without quarantine at either end.

This means that a country can belong to only one bubble.

An examination of Australian states and territories shows how there is a knock-on or reactionary effect between jurisdictions that makes our own national bubble far from perfect and which indicates why a bubble with other countries is highly unlikely.

The Australian interstate bubble

By November 13, Australia had achieved six consecutive days of no locally acquired cases, with Victoria, the former basket-case, achieving 14 consecutive zero-case days. The National Cabinet finally announced that the country would reopen all domestic borders, except WA, by Christmas.

Three days later, due to a sudden outbreak in South Australia, that plan has been shredded.

The struggle for Australia to create its own travel bubble has sometimes been acrimonious, with Queensland and Western Australia insisting on other states achieving 28 consecutive days of no community case days before reopening.

The new SA crisis shows that all states and territories run the risk of community transmissions from overseas arrivals. Infected travellers continue to fly in, without any apparent government initiative to have them tested in other countries before they embark, let alone stop them from boarding. Ships arrive with infected crew members.

This puts pressure on our quarantine systems which, inexplicably, are still operated mainly in urban centres, rather than remote locations. It’s as if the federal government, which should be in charge of our borders, is forcing the states to play Russian roulette with community outbreaks.

Back on 13 November there was effectively a bubble of six Australian jurisdictions: WA, Tasmania, Queensland, SA, ACT and NT.

WA was the strictest; if someone’s travel involved contact with a person from Victoria or NSW in the 14 days prior to travel, 14 days quarantine in WA was required. Thus, if someone from Hobart flew into Perth but had been in Melbourne the week before, they would have to quarantine for 14 days.

With the SA outbreak on 15 November, WA quickly acted and deemed SA as risky as Victoria and NSW, imposing 14 days quarantine on arrivals therefrom. There were similar reactions from Tasmania, Queensland and NT.

Without SA, the interstate bubble is now down to five.

The New Zealand bubble

A trans-Tasman bubble was negotiated with NZ to begin mid-October. Most Australians had assumed that NZ arrivals could not stray outside NSW or the NT. One suspects that even the PM and his cabinet thought the same thing. Yet on landing many of the first arrivals took onward flights to other states, much to the shock of some premiers.

This arrangement is not a bubble but a one-way corridor, with travellers from Australia having to quarantine in NZ.

NZ is cautious: on 6 November its Prime Minister indicated that Australia, with its system of states, borders and hotspots, was too risky.

Yet NZ is not squeaky clean and, based on the current situation, it could be argued that the “bubble” should be the other way round, that NZ might be a greater risk to Australia than we are to them. NZ has recently been tackling a community outbreak that had significant ramifications for Australia: 9News reported: “NSW Health has contacted 455 people who have arrived into Sydney from Auckland since November 5, alerting them to the ‘venues of concern in Auckland’ as New Zealand authorities continue to search for the source of the case.”

Their outbreak appears to have emanated from their quarantine system. Combined with another major outbreak in August that took weeks to control, should Australia be concerned about problems with NZ’s quarantine system and its contact tracing?

Some states are concerned and insist that NZ travellers quarantine. There is some inconsistency though, for example, with NT now rejecting arrivals from SA, yet welcoming NZ travellers quarantine-free.

The “first movers” bubble

In May, a group of countries that had successfully contained coronavirus discussed the possibility of a travel bubble between them. The following table shows that most of the so-called “first movers” have since been overwhelmed by coronavirus.

Total Cases to May 13 Total Cases to Nov 13 Active Cases on Nov 13 Serious, Critical Nov 13
Czech Republic 8,287 450,392 143,129 1,133
Austria 15,973 191,228 76,839 567
Greece 2,760 69,675 58,689 336
Costa Rica 815 122,123 45,718 192
Norway 8,175 27,485 15,328 23
Denmark 10,865 60,000 13,539 40
Israel 16,488 322,695 7,848 303
Australia 7,168 27,703 77 0
New Zealand 1,497 1,995 53 0

The Pacific bubble

On 12 November, the Austrade website stated that there “is widespread discussion about extending the proposed trans-Tasman ‘bubble’ to include some Pacific Island nations”.

Total Cases to May 13 Total Cases to Nov 13 Active Cases on Nov 13 Serious, Critical Nov 13
French Polynesia 60 11,485 6,591 24
Papua New Guinea 8 600 7 0
New Caledonia 18 30 2 0
Fiji 18 35 1 0
Cook Islands 0 0 0 0

Coronavirus infection rates are generally low in the Pacific islands. However, we note the recent explosion in French Polynesia due to the influx of European and American tourists – they had just 64 cases in early August.

The East Asia bubble

On 10 November the ABC ran the headline: “Federal Government in talks to expand coronavirus travel bubble beyond New Zealand to some parts of Asia.” It indicated that the PM had flagged opening up quarantine-free travel with various countries including Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and [some] provinces of China.

While there are discussions and negotiations, and one-way quarantine corridors, it seems no proper East Asia bubble exists.

Singapore is keen to receive visitors, with reports that its economy is suffering severely. They have already eased or are considering easing restrictions with a number of countries in the region. There are already one-way corridors, including flights from Melbourne, with no Singapore quarantine.

This table shows that potential East Asian bubble countries don’t have a major coronavirus problem, with active case numbers (most likely in quarantine) that are minuscule compared to their populations, and minuscule compared to the problems in Europe and the Americas.

Total Cases to May 13 Total Cases to Nov 13 Active Cases on Nov 13 Serious, Critical Nov 13
Japan 16,024 113,298 10,413 231
South Korea 10,991 28,133 2,108 50
China 82,929 86,307 394 3
Hong Kong 1,051 5,437 152 6
Vietnam 288 1,256 120 0
Singapore 25,346 58,114 78 0
Taiwan 440 597 57 0

There are political issues that could make it complicated for Australia to set up an actual bubble with East Asian countries. However, politics is not the main problem – the practicalities of establishing a bubble are. At the time of writing there are recent surges in local cases in South Korea and Japan.

So will Australia ever be part of a travel bubble?

Recall that the countries in a bubble have to trust that all have coronavirus under control to the point they are willing to allow travel between any two countries without quarantine at either end.

We note that the Australian interstate bubble is, itself, unstable due to this lack of trust. And we could argue that the problems in NZ are enough to end the trans-Tasman experiment.

However, assume a true two-way quarantine free travel bubble was opened between Australia and NZ.

  • If NZ wanted to open up to the Cook Islands, Australia would have to agree.
  • If the Cook Islands opened up to Fiji, Australia and NZ would have to decide whether to stay in the bubble.
  • Our PM mooted a bubble beyond NZ to some parts of Asia. If we opened up to Hong Kong, all those in the bubble would have to agree, or some withdraw.
  • Singapore joins the bubble, but later wants to open up to Indonesia, and so on…

This knock-on effect means that a country can belong to only one bubble and that a true, long-lasting bubble is unlikely for Australia. It is a case of trust and risk.

We are more likely to be involved in one-way travel corridors while also allowing specific types of arrivals, such as international students, who must quarantine for 14 days.

Until a suitable vaccine is available, we need to secure the community from potential outbreaks from overseas arrivals. Thus, we should move the quarantining of international arrivals to remote locations. And somehow we need to stop infected travellers boarding flights to Australia.

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Robin Boyle lectured in statistics at Deakin University and preceding institutes for three decades until 2009. His academic background in mathematics, economics and finance, as well as statistics, led him to developing teaching software in those areas and to be widely sought after as a textbook author.

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