Kiwis in Australia could be stranded at short notice for an initial 72 hours if a community outbreak forces the transtasman travel bubble to burst.
At her post-Cabinet press conference today, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern marked April 6 - a fortnight tomorrow - as the day she will reveal when the quarantine-free travel bubble will begin.
She wouldn't be drawn on a possible start date before then, but Air New Zealand is already taking bookings for more Australian flights from mid-April, which would allow travellers to make use of school and Anzac Day holidays on both sides of the Tasman.
Tourism Industry Aotearoa and Wellington Airport chief executive Steve Sanderson both said they were disappointed no starting date was revealed today, but they were optimistic a bubble would open soon after April 6.
"It would be disappointing for the bubble to be delayed further simply because the work has not been done. The bubble has been discussed and worked on since May 2020 and key policy issues are well known," Sanderson said.
"After a year of missed funerals, delayed weddings, family separations and Zoom birthday calls, it is time to get on with it and make the bubble a reality."
Some issues have been resolved, including the exit visa requirements for Australians to travel to New Zealand. Last night, Australian law was amended so Australians flying directly to New Zealand would be exempt from needing an exit visa.
Ardern outlined criteria to be met before a bubble could open, including measures to contact-trace Australian travellers, suitable systems for airlines and airports to keep bubble travellers and crew separated, and an up-to-date health assessment from director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
Once a bubble was in place, New Zealand would effectively treat Australian states as part of the New Zealand alert level system, which has seen the use of an initial 72-hour lockdown for community cases with no known source.
Ardern said such a scenario would likely burst the bubble not only for the Australian state where the cases are, but also any other states where travel is permitted to and from the location of any outbreak.
Travellers should be aware they could be stranded with very little notice, she said.
"To make this work, there will be an element of 'flyer, beware'. We want to keep it moving, but we also want to keep both sides safe, so there may be occasions when we take a precautionary approach and, for short periods of time, travel ceases."
Ardern said the Government was taking heed of the views of health experts, including epidemiologist Dr Michael Baker, who has suggested closing down some managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) capacity when the bubble opens.
That's because allowing other overseas arrivals into MIQ rooms that would otherwise be taken up by those flying in from Australia would increase risk, because those travellers would likely be from Covid-ravaged countries.
Some MIQ capacity would also be needed in case an entire flight from Australia needed to be isolated if, for example, an infected person was discovered on board.
National Party leader Judith Collins said the time for excuses was over.
"The Government has had months to work out the complexities of a transtasman bubble. It's unbelievable that it still hasn't figured this out.
"Our tourism sector has been pleading for help for a year now. Kiwis have been separated from their families for far too long."
Ardern defended the length of time it has taken so far, saying there were layers of complexity to work through and the Government has had to write a "brand new rulebook".
She said the Government was aware of the families and friends desperate to visit each other on different sides of the Tasman - "we know what it would mean for people" - but safety was paramount.
Part of the delay, she said, was moving to a state-by-state arrangement rather than one for all of Australia, which would have been easier.
But Act leader David Seymour said state-by-state agreements had been mooted for months.
"If the Government wanted them, it could have been done.
"It's clear we've been misled that serious talks on a bubble have been ongoing with Australian officials. They might have been occurring, but they clearly haven't been serious."