“The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee will consider further updates from New Zealand tomorrow and provide advice to the Chief Medical Officer regarding the management of travel arrangements between New Zealand and Australia.”
It comes after New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a snap three-day lockdown on Sunday night following the detection of the new cases, New Zealand’s first since late January, when a returned traveller tested positive after leaving quarantine. At the time, Australia temporarily suspended the travel bubble with New Zealand and mandated 14-day hotel quarantine for arrivals.
The news comes as NSW recorded its 28th day without a local case of COVID-19, its longest stretch since the pandemic began.
During an earlier press conference on Sunday, Professor Kelly said that, for the time being, there would be no change to the green-zone flights coming from New Zealand as the risk was perceived to be “very low”.
“But of course we will and we have looked at what those exposure sites are in New Zealand and we’ll be looking at that for anyone coming across the border from New Zealand,” Professor Kelly said.
However, in the later statement, he said he had convened an urgent meeting with the chief health officers of states to discuss the three-day lockdown.
“States will determine how to manage people who have already arrived in Australia from New Zealand and who may pose a risk of transmitting the COVID-19 virus,” the statement reads.
“The National Incident Room will assist states and territories by seeking relevant flight manifests.”
Caps on international arrivals in a number of states, including NSW, are also set to return to previous levels on Monday after being cut by half in January following the emergence of a highly contagious strain of the virus in the UK.
Weekly arrivals were capped at 1050 in NSW, 500 in Queensland and 512 in Western Australia for a month, after a national cabinet meeting on January 8.
On Monday, those caps will return to previous levels of 3010 people a week in NSW and 1000 people in Queensland. Western Australia’s cap will remain at 512.
However, Victoria has temporarily stopped accepting international arrivals during its lockdown. Its cap was originally due to increase from 1120 to 1310 on February 15.
Epidemiologist and lecturer in international health at the University of NSW Abrar Ahmad Chughtai said increasing caps on arrivals will increase the risk of introducing new variants of the virus to Australia.
“We’ll need to be very careful, we’re relying more on hotel quarantine now than ever before,” he said.
“I’m sure health authorities have got in place more facilities, more staff, more masks and cleaning and hygiene processes ahead of the increase.
“As long as you’re managing these things, it’s probably the right decision. People are stuck overseas and need to come back.”
A NSW Health spokesperson said strong arrangements were in place between multiple government agencies, including NSW Police, to effectively manage the return to the previous daily arrivals cap.
NSW’s 28-day milestone came amid new requirements that anyone who returned to NSW from Victoria after midnight on Friday, February 12, must comply with the five-day “circuit-breaker” lockdown in place in Victoria after more than a dozen cases were linked to a cluster originating at the Holiday Inn quarantine hotel at Melbourne Airport.
“The previous longest stretch without local cases was 26 days, when there were no cases diagnosed in the reporting cycles between 8pm on November 6 and 8pm on December 2,” NSW Health reported on Sunday.
“While this milestone is pleasing, it does not mean we can drop our guard. Cases are present in other states and are regularly being detected among international travellers arriving from overseas.”
NSW Health is still trying to track down about 350 of the 7000 people who entered NSW after spending time at Melbourne Airport on dates and times of concern, including any location in the airport on February 7 or 8 and terminal 4 at the airport between 4.45am and 2pm on February 9.
“NSW contact tracers have now spoken directly to over 95 per cent of the approximately 7000 people who attended any of the Melbourne Airport terminals from 7 to 9 February, and who subsequently arrived in NSW, to provide the relevant health advice,” the agency said.
“Calls to the remainder are continuing.”
Household contacts of people who visited terminal 4 between the specified times are also being asked to self-isolate until that person receives a negative result.
Two local cases were added to Victoria’s cluster on Sunday, bringing the total to 16.
Lyn Gilbert, a professor and senior researcher at the Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and Biosecurity at the University of Sydney, said the chances of the infection spreading to NSW were “quite small” but the state’s success in maintaining no community transmission would depend on contact tracing and luck.
“In NSW, we’ve got a pretty good record of finding people who are contacts but there’s always a possibility that it will spread, it’s a tricky virus,” she said.
“It’s always a combination of a really good system and fast responses and, to some extent, luck. And this is just going to have to continue until everyone’s vaccinated and even then, the vaccine won’t have 100 per cent uptake or effectiveness.”
Get our Coronavirus Update newsletter
Stay across the news you need to know related to the pandemic. Sent Monday and Thursday. Sign up here.
Angus Thompson is an Urban Affairs reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Pallavi Singhal is a data journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald