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New Zealand Pauses 'Travel Bubble' With Australia Amid Coronavirus Outbreak In Sydney

Less than three weeks after launching a quarantine-free "travel bubble" between New Zealand and Australia, officials in Wellington, New Zealand's capital, announced Thursday that flights from Sydney would be temporarily suspended after new coronavirus cases were detected there.

New Zealand's COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said that flights from the Australian state of New South Wales would be suspended for 48 hours from 11:59 p.m. Sydney time (9:59 a.m. ET) on Thursday.

Hipkins said health officials needed more time to evaluate the situation in Australia "and obviously we'll make decisions where we need to."

"We do acknowledge this has the potential to disrupt people's travel," he said, adding that the pause would be extended if necessary. "This isn't a decision we take lightly."

He said travel from New Zealand to Australia would still be allowed.

The news comes exactly a month after New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced plans to create what she has described as a "Trans-Tasman bubble" to allow quarantine-free travel between the two countries. It was officially launched on April 19.

New Zealand and Australia have done better than most developed countries in controlling the spread of COVID-19 – closing their borders early in the pandemic and taking other measures to prevent the disease from gaining a foothold in their populations.

Although Australia imposed a prolonged lockdown in Melbourne, it has been largely successful at keeping COVID-19 at bay. New Zealand, a country of 5 million people, has also faced occasional, small outbreaks.

An overseas traveler from the U.S. who was quarantined at a hotel in central Sydney last month was found to be infected with the B.1.617 coronavirus variant. Subsequently, an Australian couple with no known links to the man or the hotel also tested positive for the virus, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Hipkins on Thursday said there didn't appear to be any "obvious link" between the Australian cases. He characterized the pause in the travel bubble as precautionary and noted that the ability to turn on and turn off quarantine-free travel between the two countries had been built into the system when it was launched last month.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.