COVID visa policy forcing couples apart

Having navigated her relationship across two countries since 2018, on March 21 this year Gracie Wilson-Cooper was ready to shorten the distance for good, and move to New Zealand to be with her partner, Breeana.

The couple, who met while Ms Wilson-Cooper – an Australian university student – was on a gap year trip to New Zealand, had, for the past two years, travelled back and forth between the nations every two to seven weeks to see each other, and were finally set to live in the same place.

But then, like all good plans in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic – and in the case of Ms Wilson-Cooper, a certain New Zealand visa policy – up-ended their intentions completely.

“During our last trip in March, coronavirus restrictions were quickly being introduced, which led us to discussing the possibility of me moving to New Zealand with Bree to avoid being kept apart by any travel bans,” Ms Wilson-Cooper told

“The timing would have been really convenient as well, as my parents were moving up the East Coast at that exact time. Once it was decided that I would be moving to Auckland with Bree, I organised a flight from Melbourne to Auckland which would leave on March 21.

“However, both Australia and New Zealand announced on March 19 that borders would close immediately from midnight that day.”
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Gracie Wilson-Cooper was planning to move to New Zealand to be with her partner, Breeana, in March. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

Pre-coronavirus, Australians and New Zealanders could travel freely between the countries to holiday, work and visit their partners.

But with New Zealand’s border closure came legislation stating any partners wishing to return to the country had to have a partner visa – something Aussies previously didn’t need, meaning Ms Wilson-Cooper had never applied for one.

The government mandates only those with partner visas can enter the country, excluding Australians.

Ms Wilson-Cooper has now been denied a partner exemption multiple times and the two haven’t seen each other in six months.

With parts of both Australia and New Zealand in the throes of potential second waves, there’s no end in sight.

“It’s been pretty tough at times. The hardest part is just the uncertainty of the whole situation – we could see each other in a few months, or it might not be until next year if border exemptions don’t change,” she said.

“As time goes on, things will only get harder if we’re kept apart, especially seeing as both of our countries are going through second waves at the moment.”

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The couple haven’t seen each other in six months, with no end in sight. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

They’re hopeful a petition with over 7000 signatures so far will help change the legislation. Picture: SuppliedSource:Supplied

The pair aren’t alone: a petition for New Zealand’s House of Representatives to pass legislation allowing Australian partners to enter the nation without a partnership visa has gained over 7000 signatures.

The petition was started on July 22 by Lauren Bell, a New Zealand teacher who has been kept apart from her Australian husband, Gerry Tonkin-Hill, for six months as a result of the policy.

Speaking to SBS, the couple said they weren’t concerned when New Zealand first announced its border lockdown, assuming partners would soon be allowed to return.

But when the legislation came through, the couple realised they wouldn’t qualify – despite being married – because Mr Tonkin-Hill is an Australian citizen.

He’s since applied for an exemption six times, with no success.

Ms Bell filed the petition because she believes New Zealanders with Australian partners are “unfairly affected”, in the hopes couples whose relationship can be verified by a marriage certificate or proof of a long-term relationship won’t require a partnership visa to be granted an exception to the COVID-19 border restrictions.

Ms Wilson-Cooper said she was originally “counting on” the trans-Tasman travel bubble – which PM Jacinda Ardern warned earlier this month is now a “long way off” – but that “doesn’t seem realistic anymore”.

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New Zealand’s PM Jacinda Ardern told reporters earlier this month the trans-Tasman travel bubble is now ‘a long way off’. Picture: Hagen Hopkins/Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images

She said she would “100 per cent be willing and able” to pay for any quarantine or health costs associated with entering New Zealand, and that she thinks “anyone in our situation would do the same”.

New Zealand general manager of border and visa operations Nicola Hogg told the SBS those without partnership visas were subject to the border restriction unless they met another exemption criteria.

“INZ is considering options for reopening processing of partnership and dependent child visa applications for offshore partners of New Zealand citizens and residents,” she said.

“This will provide a pathway to New Zealand for those who do not meet the current requirements.”

Ms Wilson-Cooper said, “With all these uncertainties, all we can really do is wait for good news,” adding that she hoped the petition gained enough signatures to “put pressure on the New Zealand government” to change the legislation.

“We’re pretty determined to get through all of this, and I’ll be going to New Zealand as soon as it’s legally possible for me to do so.”

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