No time for treading water at the border

Roger Partridge
Insights Newsletter
30 October, 2020

Voters rewarded the Coalition Government for saving lives as the Covid-19 pandemic swept the world. Now the new Government must save livelihoods.

The immediate priority is the border.

New Zealand may be an island nation, but our economy cannot get its head above water without international labour. From construction to banking, and from IT to horticulture, overseas workers are critical to Kiwi firms. Without them, projects will stall, crops will be left unpicked, businesses will fail, and jobs will be needlessly lost.

With so few spaces in its managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities, the Government has prioritised returning Kiwis. And rightly so.

The problem is that fewer than half the visa applications for critical overseas workers have been approved – despite MIQ occupancy rates tracking at about 70% of capacity for the last two months.

On election day (17 October), the Ministry of Business, Immigration and Employment reported that the “effective capacity” of MIQ was 7252 beds. “Occupancy” was only 4825 beds. “Vacancy” stood at 2427. Projected occupancy over the next 14 days showed a similar pattern.

The unused quarantine capacity in that fortnight alone would be enough to accommodate all the critical worker applications made by firms between June and September.

MBIE’s failure to allow these workers to enter when quarantine capacity is available suggests officials have the wrong priorities. The new Government must fix this.

It should then look at the shortage of overseas workers who do not currently qualify under MBIE’s “critical worker” criteria. It is not fair that Kiwi firms lacking political pull are unable to get critical staff into the country, when well-connected America’s Cup syndicates are able to bring in team members, their families and even nannies into the country.

The new Government must also solve the other big border issue: the Trans-Tasman bubble. The Australian states that have conquered Covid show that travel between the two countries is politically feasible.

The prize for getting border security right is Australia’s 25 million potential tourists. They are exactly what the Kiwi tourism and hospitality sectors need to stay afloat.

With summer holiday season fast approaching, the new Government should prioritise safely re-opening our borders with the Covid-free states in our Trans-Tasman neighbour.

In the event of a local outbreak – in either country – borders can be swiftly re-closed. And to reassure the Kiwi public, the Government should act on a call this week from Otago University epidemiologists for a systematic reassessment of border security to reduce the risk of future failures.

The economy will sink if the Government keeps treading water on the border.


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