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Covid checkmate

20 January 2021

It is like being in checkmate in chess.  There is nowhere to go.  No moves.  The paralysis is being caused by two opposite and competing forces: one, to keep New Zealand safe and Covid free versus two, the need to keep the economy performing and the country financially viable. 

The real question is, do these two forces have to be mutually exclusive?  As of today in New Zealand, it is like being in a fantasy land.  We have a surreal existence along with our Pacific Island neighbours, when compared to the rest of the Covid-ravaged world.  The question is how long this can continue?  What is New Zealand’s next move?  

 The Covid world we now live in does not give any of us, including the Government, the options that existed before Covid.  Across all primary and industrial sectors, the same environmental, supply chain and labour supply challenges are making continued operations costly and problematic.  The Government is being forced to make some very difficult decisions and, in making those decisions, there are winners and losers.  It seems that the only way forward for the country is one where industry works in partnership with Government, and we align our strategies and policies. 

 Maintaining good border security is paramount.  For our economic survival, we need the border to permit the movement of workers and goods.  A complete border lockdown would ensure New Zealand’s health but not our economic survival. 

 We need to trade our products overseas to earn overseas funds, and we need many of the goods that the world makes back here in New Zealand.  We cannot exist in splendid isolation.  Both sea and air freight are very problematic and are not operating efficiently or anywhere near pre-Covid levels.  This is making selling our produce overseas and getting products into New Zealand haphazard.  When your product only has a limited life before it is no longer saleable, this only compounds the problem. 

 Worker movement across the border is also very important for virtually every business in New Zealand.  In many cases, the workers are experts and critical to New Zealand producing world-leading products that consumers around the world will buy.  Winemakers are one example where they make wine in both the northern and then the southern hemispheres, each year.  Then there are workers that perform many of our seasonal tasks, who supplement the New Zealand workforce. 

 Industry and Government are working together to bring in these much-needed workers.  When they come from countries with no or highly managed Covid levels, the adoption of different and tailored approaches at the border, while fully maintaining New Zealand’s line of defence against Covid, is feasible. The issue is, can we bring in enough of these workers? 

 It is possible for the border to be operated effectively to protect New Zealand as well as to permit the movement of key workers in and out of New Zealand.  However, this does require a flexible approach and one that assesses risk and responds to those risks accordingly.  This requires industry and Government to work closely together so that New Zealand can continue to prosper economically.

As a country, we are not in checkmate with no moves to make.  We need to be bold, make the hard decisions, work together in partnership, and look to our future prosperity in what is now our new existence with Covid ever present. 

Mike Chapman

Chief Executive