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Ardern bursts bubble: NZ will retain quarantine this year

November 6, 2020 Headline News No Comments

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has dashed hopes of a pre-Christmas travel bubble, which would have let Australians cross the Tasman to visit without needing to quarantine.

New Zealanders can already visit several Australian states without quarantine – but it’s not reciprocated in the other direction.

Speaking to Business New Zealand yesterday, Ardern said New Zealand would not shift its border controls this year, even though Covid-19 in Australia has fallen to very low levels.

“We will be continuing with our existing border settings for now, while we work on what can be accommodated within those settings,” she said.

“New Zealanders want and deserve a safe summer holiday, so our focus is on managing the existing risk profile.”

The decision means Australians will concentrate on travel within Australia this holiday season (state border closures permitting), and New Zealanders will do likewise in their country.

New Zealand’s borders remain closed to foreigners, except to those with a government-approved exemption, and visitors must do two weeks quarantine at a cost of NZ$3000.

While the world celebrates New Zealand’s success in eliminating Covid-19, the country has taken a massive economic hit from the consequent shutdown of its international tourism sector.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Tourism was New Zealand’s largest export industry in terms of foreign exchange earnings. It directly employed 8.4% of the country’s workforce. In 2019, total tourism expenditure in New Zealand was NZ$40.9 billion. International tourism expenditure increased 5.2% to NZ$17.2 billion, and contributed 20.4% to New Zealand’s total exports of goods and services.

With the end of inbound international tourism, after Covid struck and borders were sealed, New Zealand’s corporate sector has helped take up some of the slack by keeping their people flying domestically. Research from travel management company FCM Travel Solutions – part of the Flight Centre Travel Group – shows 56% of New Zealand businesses have employees and executives flying, a rate 6% above the global average.

Whangamata Beach, New Zealand. Photo © Peter Needham

General Manager Flight Centre Corporate, Nick Queale, said FCM bookings showed that after the first period of New Zealand’s lockdown, travel bookings took just one week to return to 11% of the comparable level last year. Within five weeks, the figure had jumped to 24%.

In her speech to Business New Zealand yesterday, Ardern explained how, faced with the emergence of a global pandemic, New Zealand had to decide priorities.

“In New Zealand’s case, we made our choices,” she said.

“They were based on the make-up of our population, some of the unique advantages we have – not least our border, and our perspective that there is no cost-free option, but by forgoing some freedoms, namely the free movement at our borders, we retain the long-term health of our population and the open economy we now enjoy.

“It was a choice, but one that I strongly believe has served us well, and that New Zealanders have for the most part, supported. That support has also been key. And the importance of consensus building has only been reinforced for me as a leader through this experience.

Ardern continued: “Covid 19 is raging in Europe. We are seeing levels of infection not seen since the first wave, and the return of lockdowns in many places. Sweden has announced social gathering limits and some time ago asked its population to prepare to work from home for 6 months.

“The UK, Germany, France and other parts of Europe are under restrictions again.  It is unquestionably tough out there. And while that is the case, it will be tough here too.

“In fact, the coming years will be very difficult with the global growth forecasts showing the impact of the virus is going to be with New Zealand for some time – both in terms of managing its spread but also recovering from its economic impact.”

New Zealand summer. 26 degree heatwave. Photo © Peter Needham

Speaking of border security, Ardern said: “This is a large and complex operation. In fact, on a per capita basis our quarantine capacity is larger than Australia’s, with up to 6000 people in facilities at any given time. We have a work force of 4000 people including up to 1000 health staff as well as our military and police monitoring security.

“It requires rigorous infection controls, and daily health checks of staff as well as regular testing. Few other countries are even attempting to stop Covid at the border in this way and in the main it is working.

“But there is also no foolproof, error-free way of managing a virus.  It is tricky and requires layers of back up for the occasions when it may infect those working in high-risk situations. We have built those layers, and they are serving us well. Recent transmission of the virus at the border for instance, has been picked up early, ring-fenced and prevented from spreading.

“But ongoing vigilance is absolutely key. Every single day.

“Then there is the complex exercise of managing the flow of people.

“We have both scheduled and charter flights coming into New Zealand carrying citizens and permanent residents. Forward planning under these circumstances was difficult, making it extraordinarily hard to effectively and efficiently use excess capacity for essential workers when it was so difficult to anticipate demand from citizens.

“From the 3rd of November we have required all returnees to have a voucher for managed isolation facilities. This enables us to plan ahead, match demand and capacity, and put in place our quota system for essential workers.

“We want to find a balance here between bringing in more workers essential to our economic recovery and ensuring there is space for New Zealanders wanting to return home to do so – and I should note that as you can imagine, demand is high and at some points, at capacity in the lead up to Christmas. Kiwis understandably want to come home.

“In the meantime, a persistent question that has come from the private sector has been whether we will open up managed isolation to private provision. I understand the call for extra capacity.  And I am certainly not arguing that the only ones capable of managing a facility is a government agency. However, there are some basic provisions that we have to have in order to make quarantine work. These provisions are not limitless in their availability.

“Health staff and law enforcement are amongst them.  Every health worker we remove from the system, places pressure elsewhere.  So, let’s keep the conversation on our borders going, but while remembering that they are key to our success.”

“Our vaccine strategy is rolling out well. We have advanced purchase arrangements with Pfizer and BioNTech and are in negotiations with a number of others.  Based on current predictions, roll out of different vaccinations is likely to begin in earnest next year, albeit with some varying estimates around which quarter.”

Ardern added that New Zealand’s unemployment figures, released on Wednesday, put the unemployment rate at just 5.3%, which she said was “well below the more than 9% prediction we faced at the budget, and puts us below Australia at 6.9% and the OECD average of 7.4%”.

Written by Peter Needham

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