Guest Post: Affordable borders and a secure quarantine

A guest post by Shaun Wallis, an expat working in London:

This week, the Government signalled its working on plans to charge citizens to enter their own country. National is going further. It wants to charge New Zealanders $3000 for staying in quarantine. 

It’s a populist fix in the middle of an election, but it won’t make another outbreak in any less likely. The financial benefit for the Government from the policy will be at the slimmest of margins, allowing for ways for people to pay. If anything, charging a fee will give a sense of false security to a problem that is ongoing and requires creative thinking. The better position to start from is: “how does NZ open for business in a way that’s safe and secure?”; not “how does NZ make people pay for this problem”. 

Countless expats in Australia & around the world are furious with the proposal. It impacts people on a deeply personal level. The overwhelming majority of Kiwis abroad eventually come home, bring skills and expertise, pay tax and live the majority of their lives back home. We all know of someone in our family or wider network that has done or is doing a stint overseas. Here are some core things to consider before we get to the issue of fees:

1.The pandemic is driving up the cost for thousands of Kiwis to return home: If you’re considering a move back and it was a case of pack your suitcase and home it would already have happened. All have the same commitments as those back home – jobs, family, flats and / or property. Lockdown & restrictions in many countries such as Europe and the USA have been more prolonged than NZ. Flight schedules have been badly impacted, with flights ranging anything up to $10k in the midst of the pandemic, depending where you are in the world. Many also have underlying health conditions or are too concerned to fly, and opted (in good faith) not to jump on a plane to pose a health risk to themselves and NZ on arrival.

2. Arrivals overloading the border diverts vital resources away from eliminating the virus: Put simply, could the NZ quarantine system have coped with the vast majority of the 1m Kiwi diaspora coming home at once? Of course not. Proposals that charges are about to apply to new arrivals will very likely create a rush at the border. The border is already under considerable strain as and immigration officials have indicated.

3.$3000 is excessive and no one knows where it really came from: Hotel quarantine is expensive for the country, yes. $3,000 is also obscenely expensive for the individual, and hard to justify imposing at that price or where that price came from. Looking at how officials reached this figure, and what alternative models or pricing they considered, if any, will be telling. 

4. The public benefits at present: Quarantining at the border is part of NZ’s public health response to COVID-19, with the wider NZ public benefiting from zero COVID-19 transmission. Likewise the economic benefits of the border policy – e.g. your local restaurant being able to operate at capacity without social distancing measures. As is scaling up hospital capacity, deferring elective surgery etc. Similarly the NZ government is spending in other economic areas of its COVID-19 response, making up the $50b response package. This doesn’t make sense. 

We have alternatives:

It’s been nearly 6 months of COVID-19 and from early April whereby the NZ Government imposed the 14-day hotel quarantine. By now could have started to pick and choose from some of the best models around the world and trial them. 

It still can.  Particularly as the world starts reopening. Vietnam, Hong Kong and Iceland are all models NZ can learn from and if nothing else, build on. For example:

Crucially, what’s lacking from NZ’s current quarantine system is risk-profiling. 

Risk-profiling works on new arrivals based on country of origin and the state of COVID-19. A “traffic light” system has been coined based on COVID-19 prevalence. For example, if you’re a  passenger arriving on a direct flight from Vietnam is Taiwan, you have a lower chance of having COVID-19 than someone from Brazil. Testing could also be enhanced, with more frequent testing for those from “red” countries than green. This includes antigen and antibody testing, to confirm if persons arriving have already had COVID-19 and therefore deemed low risk. 

Once new models are piloted, these could be applied to other visitors (in the absence of no readily available vaccine this year). “COVID-19 Secure” holiday packages in “clean & green NZ” would be of interest to tourists as demand returns.

An interim pricing policy for returning New Zealanders until better border management is in place: 

To balance competing interests & as an interim solution, here’s a proposal that is fairer to Kiwis, both at home and abroad (kudos to chats with Megan Hands). It’s not perfect, but some principles to start with:

  1. All returning/visiting citizens can return once per year with cost of quarantine accommodation covered. 
  2. Compassionate exemptions would be in place for and visiting terminally or critically ill loved ones outside of your return once per year.
  3. Spouses children of Citizens treated as citizens and this policy applies. 
  4. Permanent Residents can enter quarantine for free provided only they are returning on a permanent basis and to paid employment.
  5. Meals could be user pays but at a capped rate – there is no free lunch for New Zealanders outside of quarantine, there doesn’t have to be one inside of it
  6. Incentives for businesses trying to access the market are needed as quarantine systems mature should be facilitated by

The wage subsidy is in place until September. The tourism sector is arguably heavily dented. NZ should be questioning whether it can afford to deter any more money coming into the country than what has been done already. To withstand rising unemployment when the wage subsidy is cut in September, NZ needs to partner with innovators to explore & launch different border control models. Charging $3000 per arrival does not guarantee NZ will be any safer. NZ has a very strong brand internationally at present that it can capitalise on and continue to act as fast movers. Targeted policies that unite everyone while testing and building resilient new systems are the best things NZ can do to lead on COVID-19. 

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