New Zealanders in Australia hope travel bubble will end months-long wait for quarantine hotel places

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Requirement to book limited spaces before buying flight has led to months-long backlog

Air New Zealand plane
Return travellers to New Zealand must book a place at a quarantine hotel, leading to a months-long wait to return. Photograph: David White/AAP
Return travellers to New Zealand must book a place at a quarantine hotel, leading to a months-long wait to return. Photograph: David White/AAP

Last modified on Sun 13 Dec 2020 23.47 EST

New Zealanders forced to wait months in Australia for a place in their country’s hotel quarantine program hope Monday’s announcement of an impending travel bubble will allow them to return home quicker.

The New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, told reporters on Monday the long-awaited trans-Tasman bubble was expected to begin in the first quarter of 2021.

“It is our intention to name a date ... in the new year, once remaining details are locked down,” she said.

That came as welcome news for New Zealanders waiting up to three months for a hotel, who may now be able to avoid quarantine altogether.

Under New Zealand’s scheme, return travellers must book a place online and are then given 48 hours to confirm they have bought a flight. A spot in managed isolation is mandatory to board a flight to the country.

Serena Bentley, a New Zealander who lives in Melbourne, said: “I’m desperately hopeful [Ardern’s announcement] will impact me. My excitement [about going home] is tempered by the fear of spending two weeks locked in a hotel room with a toddler.”

Unless the bubble is put in place, New Zealanders who have come to Australia for the summer or Christmas without a confirmed spot may be left stranded until March.

NZ authorities acknowledged “peak demand” for quarantine places on Monday, although the situation appeared to have been exacerbated by some travellers “hoarding” several bookings at a time, Radio New Zealand reported.

Bentley said she understood why the NZ government was protecting its status of one of the few Covid-free countries in the world, but that the lack of places was frustrating.

When she booked a place last month, the earliest available spot was 21 January, a two-month wait. By Monday, the quarantine program’s website showed no spots were available until early March.

The Melburnian had hoped to visit her family in Auckland as soon as possible after spending Christmas in Australia with her husband.

“I’m just on the wrong side of the border. I understand what they’re doing and I support it, but I do want to go home,” she said.

Bentley’s husband, who is not a New Zealand citizen, will be unable to join her on the trip unless the bubble becomes a reality. He would be required to pay $3,000 for a room in the program. Bentley and her young child would avoid those costs only by staying in the country longer than 90 days.

Queensland opened the border to New Zealanders on Saturday, so Kiwis could reunite with relatives in that state in time for Christmas. However, the easing of restrictions applies only to people travelling on “green” flights that carry only New Zealand passengers.

New Zealanders can also visit New South Wales and the Northern Territory without quarantining.

Under the current regulations, anyone who returns to New Zealand, including from Australia, must spend 14 days in managed quarantine.

Australians looking to return home have faced similarly long delays since the start of the pandemic, although the Australian system works differently – there is no requirement to book a hotel spot, but because the number of rooms is limited, airlines have had to drastically cut the number of available seats and flights into Australian cities.

A spokesperson for New Zealand’s managed isolation and quarantine program said it was constrained by the number of essential workers available.

“We need nurses, defence personnel and police to run these facilities, and this a limited workforce,” the spokesperson said.

“In addition to workforce supply issues, a minority of hotels meet our requirements. There are a limited number of suitable facilities that are in locations where there is also a suitable hospital facility.

“We’re asking people to be flexible over the period leading into our summer holidays and if there are no available places in managed isolation on their preferred date, to check and see if there are any places available on another nearby date.

“A small number of places do become available from time to time if people cancel their vouchers, so we recommend people check in regularly to see if space has opened up on their preferred dates.”