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New Zealand airport worker tests positive to Covid on second day of travel bubble

Tess McClure in Auckland and Paul Karp in Canberra
·4-min read

A New Zealand airport worker has tested positive for Covid-19, just one day after the country opened a quarantine-free travel bubble with Australia. The border worker is employed at Auckland airport, the largest and busiest airport in New Zealand.

Speaking to the press, the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said the worker had been fully vaccinated early in the rollout, and had tested positive as part of routine screening. She said the worker cleaned planes coming in from “red zone”, or high-risk countries, and “all signs point” to this case having no connection to new Australian arrivals.

The Australian health minister, Greg Hunt, indicated the case was highly unlikely to affect the newly minted travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand.

Hunt told reporters that Australian authorities had “full confidence in New Zealand’s system”, which was dealing with an “inevitable outbreak” with “highly developed containment systems”.

New Zealand airports are separated into red and green zones. The red zones deal with all international flights, where passengers are directed into managed isolation and quarantine. Green zones are used by domestic passengers, as well as those visiting under quarantine-free travel arrangement from Australia, Niue and the Cook Islands.

Related: Joy, actually: happy reunions fill Auckland airport as trans-Tasman bubble begins

Ardern said these kinds of cases were to be expected at the border. “We entirely expect that people who are vaccinated will still get Covid-19, it just means that they will not get sick, and they will not die.”

“It is by no means a leaky border,” she said, if someone who cleans a plane that carries people infected with Covid tests positive.

Ardern said these kinds of cases had been anticipated by both the Australian and New Zealand governments when they announced the bubble rules. “The reason this person was part of our surveillance testing is because they were working in an area considered to be high risk,” she said. “They are working on planes coming from countries that are high risk.”

Both Australia and New Zealand knew that when the borders opened there would continue to be cases on both sides: “We accept that it’s going to be part of our journey together.”

She said she had not yet spoken to the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, but the countries’ health ministers were in contact.

She added that as well as protecting workers from getting serious illness, there was also evidence the vaccine “reduces down the likelihood of passing it to others”.

Hunt said he and Australia’s chief medical officers had “high confidence” New Zealand “knows how to deal with this”.

He noted the worker was “fully vaccinated” and had “been working in the hot zones, receiving planes from those areas overseas which have higher case loads”.

“But the worker has done everything right. The New Zealand system has picked up a case and we know that we have a highly infectious disease, but highly developed containment systems in both New Zealand and Australia.”

If the case is an isolated one, it is unlikely to have any effect on the trans-Tasman bubble. When the bubble was announced, the New Zealand government outlined a “traffic light” system to establish under which circumstances the quarantine-free pathway might close.

In the event of an Australian border case with a clear source, and where further spread was unlikely, the border would stay on “green”, and travel would continue. With a case of unknown origin that was likely to be linked to the border, the border would be “orange” and travel may pause for 72 hours. Where there were multiple cases of unknown origin, the bubble could close.

The Ministry of Health said in a press release on Tuesday that “the usual protocol of isolating the case, interviewing them, and tracing their contacts and movements is under way” and more information would be provided later that afternoon.

New Zealand officials have previously warned “flyer beware” and that travellers should be cautious, because another outbreak in either country could mean the border would close. “We may have scenarios where travel will shut down one way,” Ardern said earlier this month. “It may therefore leave travellers – for a period of time – stranded on either side of the Tasman.”

Ardern told ABC TV this morning that 1,800 Australians had crossed into New Zealand on Monday.