Government sticking to target for travel bubble

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Despites key setbacks this week, Government is sticking to its target of opening the border to two-way quarantine-free travel with New Zealand by the end of next month.

With new community cases in Auckland and ongoing delays in setting up mass Covid-19 testing capabilities at Rarotonga Hospital, the Government is committed to opening the border by April to kick-start the tourism sector and inject needed cash into the ailing economy.

On Tuesday, New Zealand’s Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins revealed there were three new cases in the community, all linked to the original cases that had tested positive last week.

Two of the cases are siblings who both attend Papatoetoe High School in south Auckland. The third case is a family member of the pair.

In response, the Cook Islands Government barred passengers from boarding Tuesday’s flight to Rarotonga from Auckland as a result of NZ’s latest community outbreak, which saw the country enter an alert level 3 lockdown.

Government spokesperson Jaewynn McKay said the Covid-19 taskforce will convene today before a scheduled Cabinet meeting to discuss how Government will respond to the latest cases.

Despite the latest community cases, Auckland and wider New Zealand dropped one level each – to levels 2 and 1 respectively – from midnight last night.

Health officials have yet to determine the source of the community outbreak. A wave of testing has ensued, with over 15,000 receiving swab tests in a 24-hour period.

Testing setback

Compounding challenges for the Cook Islands Government, the setting up of a real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) laboratory at Rarotonga Hospital has been hit with new delays.

Originally expected to be in operation by the end of 2020, the lab’s opening date has now been pushed from the end of this month to April.

McKay said the revised timeline is due to shipping delays for required lab equipment.

Last month, Secretary Bob Williams said an operable PCR lab “… will be significant in helping us lift our testing capability for Covid-19,” while Prime Minister Mark Brown said a “good robust testing regime” is a requirement for two-way travel bubble with NZ.

As officials assess the latest development, a delegation from the NZ government is continuing its work in Rarotonga, supporting Te Marae Ora with Covid-19 planning.

The delegation, consisting of Dr Colin Tukuitonga from the University of Auckland and Dr Tessa Luff from the New Zealand Ministry of Health, have met government ministries and agencies.

Meetings were also held with the Cook Islands Chamber of Commerce, discussing modifications to the country’s contact tracing capabilities.

Chamber president Fletcher Melvin said: “The meeting went very well and the doctors said they were very impressed with the CookSafe contact tracing programme.”

Melvin said while the two countries are making headway in preparation for two-way quarantine-free travel, the current outbreak “is threatening progress”.

“The need for the bubble to be established is critical as people are now leaving the country and it will speed up over the coming year if something is not established,” he said.

(Source: Cook Island News 17 February 2021)

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