Dr Eric Crampton
Chief Economist
nzinitiative.org.nz

Some conversations are difficult, but critical. This week, Sir Peter Gluckman, the Rt Hon Helen Clark, and Rob Fyfe released a short ‘conversation paper’ called Re-engaging New Zealand with the World.

Rather than saying how and when New Zealand’s borders could safely be re-opened, it instead opens the conversation with some important questions.

The pandemic is likely to persist for years. Nobody has a vaccine yet and scaling up vaccine production after one is developed will take years. Over half a million Kiwis live in Australia and have the right to return, and up to half a million more live in other parts of the world where the pandemic rages more furiously.

Building systems to let Kiwis return home safely – and at scale – is incredibly important.

The shift to military oversight of New Zealand’s managed isolation system will strengthen processes at the border. Running that process well matters. The US is adding coronavirus cases at a rate of knots; half a million Americans tested positive in the two weeks from 15-30 June – that’s about fifteen Americans for every ten thousand. Many more are likely undiagnosed. If ten thousand Kiwis return home from the US, perhaps fifteen might bring the bug with them.

It’s easy to cast conversations about the border into political narratives during an election campaign.

Those wanting safer process at the border that can scale up to meet the need are framed as prioritising growth over lives. But those processes are needed even if New Zealand never allowed a single non-citizen to enter the country.

Because the system cannot manage large numbers of returning Kiwis, immense hardship is imposed. Grandparents cannot visit their grandchildren. Families are separated. Important events are missed. And there seems little hope any of this will improve in a reasonable timeframe – or even making progress on important issues before the election.

The lack of capacity to handle more arrivals also puts critically important projects at risk. This past week, the Government has been trying to figure out how to allocate scare isolation spaces among overseas experts who are critical to the Government’s prioritised shovel-ready infrastructure projects. It leads to impossible trade-offs across which no Minister should have to adjudicate.

We need to be able to have these conversations, despite the election. We at the Initiative have been thinking hard about these issues. Stay tuned.

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