New Zealand and the Cook Islands are working towards a travel bubble by May, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced.
The announcement was made during an official visit from Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown on Friday in Auckland at the War Memorial Museum.
Brown said he was confident quarantine-free travel could be achieved in that timeframe.
“We are ready for business, and we are looking forward to the commencement in May,” he said.
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With the Cook Islands Covid-free, Ardern said the risk is of those departing New Zealand carrying the virus to the Cook Islands, and Kiwis “carry a lot of responsibility” to get it right.
Ardern said the Government is currently working on the onward distribution process for vaccines to other countries.
She said the Government is working with vaccine providers, with some liability issues yet to be ironed out.
Ardern said a bubble is not contingent on widespread vaccination.
The two leaders met behind closed doors and discussed two-way travel, the Covid-19 vaccination roll-out and protecting Cook Islanders’ livelihoods until the borders reopened.
Ardern said New Zealand had already committed to helping its realm neighbours in its vaccination programmes, after purchasing enough vaccines for the Cooks, Tokelau and Niue.
She said her Government would be working to expedite vaccination to the Cooks.
Brown became the first international leader officially welcomed into the country since the coronavirus struck.
He was accorded a Māori welcome on Friday morning at the Auckland War Memorial Museum grounds by Ngāti Whātua Ōrakei, who performed a wero and powhiri.
The Royal New Zealand Navy provided a 100-man guard of honour.
Both leaders had aimed for two-way quarantine-free travel by the end of March, but after two level 3 lockdowns since Auckland’s February cluster, that was unlikely to happen.
There is currently one-way travel allowed from Rarotonga, which began in January, with no quarantine required for new arrivals into New Zealand.
Brown said before his arrival he was hoping to progress active discussions on two-way travel in his discussions with Ardern.
He said he would be working very hard to secure a confirmed new date for the two-way quarantine-free travel.
“There is no one who wants those borders open more than me, both as the prime minister and as the minister of finance,” Brown said.
“I know better than anyone the costs our business community is bearing.”
Cook Islands recently took another step to strengthen travel opportunities with the roll-out of its new contact tracing app, CookSafe+.
It is compatible with New Zealand’s Covid Tracer app.
Developed in conjunction with Rush Digital RUSH, the same software design and technology provider used by New Zealand’s Ministry of Health to build its NZ Covid Tracer app, CookSafe+ uses Bluetooth technology.
Pacific health expert Colin Tukuitonga said the upgrade of Cook Islands tracer app is vital.
He had visited Rarotonga recently to assess its health structure and how New Zealand could help make two-way quarantine free travel as safe as possible.
He said both governments already had checks in place to minimise spread, such as mandatory Covid-19 free results 96 hours before travel and strict overnight-isolation for flight crews.
A one-way travel bubble has opened, with the first flight from the Cook Islands touching down at Auckland International Airport. (Video first published January 21, 2021)
The Cook Islands government also set up a new polymerase chain reaction (PCR) lab to lift its testing capabilities for Covid-19.
Brown recently said the Cooks have asked the New Zealand government to supply Pfizer vaccines for its 17,000 plus citizens.
Although no details have been confirmed by New Zealand of when these will arrive in Cook Islands, Brown said they are ready to receive and begin their vaccination roll-out.