Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand ordered a pause on quarantine-free travel from Australia for at least eight weeks, citing coronavirus surges caused by the Delta variant that have left more than half of Australia under lockdown.
“This is not a decision we have taken lightly but it is, we believe, the right one,” Ms. Ardern told reporters at a news conference. “This will mean many people will find themselves for a time once more separated from friends and families in Australia, and I know this announcement will be a disappointment to them.”
The travel bubble was a rarity in Asia, where many countries have closed their borders during the pandemic, and had been largely successful as the two countries enforced strict controls to keep the virus at bay.
The emergence of the highly transmissible Delta variant, however, has challenged the “Covid zero” strategy in both countries. And sluggish vaccination programs, which have stalled reopenings in much of the Asia Pacific region, have provoked deep frustration among residents of Australia and New Zealand who have been in and out of lockdowns since the pandemic began.
The Australian state of New South Wales on Friday reported 136 new cases, its highest daily total since the pandemic began, in an outbreak that on Friday was declared a national emergency. Separate outbreaks in the states of Queensland, Victoria and South Australia appear to be contained, according to health officials. New Zealand has not reported any community transmission of the virus for more than three months.
It is the first time that New Zealand has suspended quarantine-free travel from all of Australia since the bubble was introduced in April. The country had previously halted travel from certain Australian states experiencing localized outbreaks.
Travel from New Zealand to Australia will not be affected by the suspension, Ms. Ardern said, adding that the government would arrange return flights for New Zealand citizens and residents currently in Australia.
The announcement comes as both countries’ vaccination campaigns lag behind those in many rich nations. According to New York Times data, 19 percent of people in New Zealand have received at least one dose of a vaccine, and 29 percent in Australia.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia apologized on Thursday for the slowness of the vaccine rollout. The country had planned to use a combination of locally produced AstraZeneca shots and imported vaccines produced by Pfizer and BioNTech. But mistrust in the AstraZeneca vaccine, stemming from concerns about the risk of extremely rare blood clots, prompted Australia to buy 20 million more doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, about one-quarter of which are expected to arrive in August.
Later this month, New Zealand is expected to open up vaccinations to anyone over age 18. But limited supply of the Pfizer vaccine, the backbone of New Zealand’s inoculation effort, means that most residents will not receive a first dose until later this year.