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Covid-19: Can New Zealand learn anything from reopening UK travel?

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Josh Martin is a Kiwi journalist based in London.

OPINION: Here’s the ultimate Covid-era fool’s errand: comparing one of the countries with the highest Covid infection and death rates to a nation still touted as a star of the coronavirus response.

But here it is – and please hold the mockery until the end. As the world gradually opens up, New Zealand could look to countries like the UK for guidance on how to handle the reopening of the travel industry in the Covid era. Yes, it may sound like the political equivalent of showing up to a garage sale in the worst neighborhood late in the day and picking up the dregs no one else wants, but there are a few nuggets in there.

Questions remain over how the travel industry will reopen in the Covid era.

Bevan Read / Tips

Questions remain over how the travel industry will reopen in the Covid era.

Recent evidence suggests there isn’t much local interest in hot expats on the NZ Covid response, but I’ve got some low priced deals just gotta go! Since any mention of Boris Johnson’s (mis)handling of the pandemic elicits a look worthy of the clumsy, low-rent Donald Trump, I should start with a few caveats.

No country has handled this perfectly, far from it, and the UK’s “What NOT to do in times of Coronavirus” is a global bestseller, so my list will be brief. Travel to and from the UK (apart from the ban on overseas holidays in early 2021) has been legal for most of the pandemic and, although expensive and risky, has allowed for more family reunions and kept the industry going (just ).

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Travel, while often associated with middle-class white people wanting to get away from their not-too-difficult lives, is far more often about people — families, friends, lovers — connecting and reconnecting. Grounded Kiwis’ legal action against the New Zealand government shows that shutting down a country is more than banning the wealthy. Two years later, some families are still counting the days until the end of the MIQ lottery system.

The UK, via the EU, has a strong track record of airline refund policy, so it is perhaps unsurprising that when Covid first hit in March 2020, airlines European Unions were legally required to offer Britons cash refunds on flights that could not be taken. Polite harassment to make them hurry in some cases (looking at you, SWISS). As lockdowns set in and jobs seemed shaky, getting cash back made a big difference for households.

Cash refunds remain the main policy when flights are canceled in the UK, but New Zealand is not so consumer-friendly.

Ricky Wilson / Stuff

Cash refunds remain the main policy when flights are canceled in the UK, but New Zealand is not so consumer-friendly.

The New Zealand comparison was not as consumer-friendly, with months-long battles with the national carrier for answers, refunds, but for the most part, credits. For now, these can only effectively be used for home hops. Cash refunds remain the main policy when flights are canceled in the UK, but changes to dates, times and even destinations can be made with most carriers as part of their base fares – such is the ever-present threat of various European countries moving in and out of lockdowns.

Refunds as standard would be better because a credit voucher is effectively an interest-free loan given to an airline that may or may not survive a pandemic, but it is welcome to see the return of flexibility in ticketing and not just for the business class traveler. Meanwhile Air New Zealand and Jetstar offer flexibility but not as standard at their entry level fare, in some cases you will have to pay almost double to include it in your ticket, and when change fees are between $30 and $50 doesn’t always make sense.

One of the UK’s first (many) failures was the test. From Islington to Inverness, people have struggled to get a PCR test. “Symptoms? Just assume you have it” – we were locked down anyway. Today the opposite is true: Britons are drowning in nasal swabs. Last year around this time , I learned to administer both PCR and rapid lateral flow tests (which is boring with different names in almost every country) No Covid meant that Jacinda Ardern could instead implement the nurse-administered PCR test reference policy while talking about home antigen testing.

With the arrival of Omicron, this lack of foresight caught up with New Zealand. Threats of rationing even PCR tests have suddenly meant that rapid tests are back in fashion. For the eventual restart of travel, having a population accustomed to widespread, accurate and easily accessible test kits can only be a good thing. A whole cottage industry of private medical laboratories selling pre-departure and on-arrival PCR and antigen testing services has sprung up across the UK in 2020. Prices have halved over time for testing PCR and antigens are much cheaper and faster, but reliance on the private sector has led some rogue start-ups to rip off customers.

I hope that, for the sake of New Zealand’s beleaguered tourism sector and thousands of separated families, the Covid-19 travel testing regime could be incorporated into the public health mission to lessen the blow to these groups.

At a minimum, New Zealand should consider moving directly to lower-cost antigen testing, as once Covid rages in the community, out-of-sync border restrictions such as stricter testing or MIQ measures to “prevent it from enter” seem weak.