The Government says its officials have been “concluding arrangements with Australia” on a travel bubble between New Zealand and Australia.

In a response to written questions by National MP Chris Bishop, the Covid-19 Recovery Minister Chris Hipkins said that there had been numerous rounds of talks between New Zealand and Australian officials and that a deal was being wrapped up.

“On 4 February 2021, New Zealand and Australian officials met for a 12th round of trans-Tasman talks, where key issues of discussion included the draft Arrangement text, response frameworks, and ongoing implementation planning,” Hipkins answered.

“As at 11 February, officials are in the process of concluding arrangements with Australia that would allow two-way quarantine-free travel to commence.”

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Covid response minister Chris Hipkins in the debating chamber this week.

ROBERT KITCHIN/Stuff

Covid response minister Chris Hipkins in the debating chamber this week.

“These arrangements provide that quarantine-free travel may commence when the respective health authorities have determined that the rate of Covid-19 transmission and associated public health risk is acceptably low in both countries.”

In December the Government revealed a hopeful timetable for trans-Tasman travel by the end of March this year. When contacted by Stuff about his answers Hipkins was non-committal, saying that “negotiations are ongoing with Australia around trans-Tasman travel”.

“Coid-19 is a tricky virus which both countries continue to grapple with. It’s difficult to put a timeframe on when negotiations might conclude in that context.”

Opposition Covid Response spokesman Chris Bishop has called on the Government to be upfront about the status of the bubble.

“The response has been slow. New Zealanders deserve an honest update of where things are at. There are still families separated who were told to, andexpect a March bubble, which doesn’t look like it is going to happen, so government needs to be upfront.”

The written questions also reveal that, despite Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern publicly musing that bubble deals may have to be made with each of the Australian states, that there have been no conversations with any of the states on reciprocal quarantine-free travel.

“It does look increasingly difficult at a country-by-country level. We haven’t ruled out the possibility of state-by-state, but I know many people will have been frustrated by the impact that has been had on their travel,” Ardern said in late January.

But in answers to written questions of whether the Government had directly approached any Australian states, Hipkins said no.

“Arrangements for a trans-Tasman Safe Travel Zone are being discussed with the Australian Federal Government. How states and territories participate in a safe travel zone is for the Australian authorities to determine,” Hipkins said in his answer.

In practice, despite the prime minister’s musings, while Australian states have power over their own internal borders, they do not have power over the national Australian border, nor aviation regulations.

That means that any bubble arrangement would have to be first negotiated with the Australian federal Government, before individual states decide how they will act. Unlike New Zealand, Australians have been barred from leaving their shores since March 2020 unless they qualify for a rare exemption to leave that includes getting a job abroad, or a compelling medical or compassionate reasons.

”The Government has publicly floated state by state bubbles – but done nothing as my written questions reveal. They should be talking to Queensland, South Australia; Tasmania. They aren’t. We can unilaterally say Australians from those states spend less or no time in MIQ as Australia has done for us,” Bishop said.

Relations over the border have been strained since the Australian Government temporarily halted quarantine-free travel for New Zealanders after the Northland Covid case in late January. Several Australian states have once again stopped quarantine travel with New Zealand as a result of the most recent outbreak.

On February 9, in response to questions about the Australian bubble, Ardern said that it had become more problematic and that the Government wouldn’t be rushed into making a decision.

“You cannot unscramble the egg, once they are open, we have to make sure that we can make it work because it will be damaging, economically, if we open, close, open, close, and then permanently shut it, no one wants that.” Ardern said.

“There are relatively complex issues to resolve, but we have had nine months now. I hope politics isn’t getting in the way,” Bishop said.

“The major problem seems to be what happens when and if there are community cases in either country but surely an agreed protocol can be put in place,” he said.