New Zealand’s border is its first line of defence against Covid-19. The gross failures exhibited this week cannot be repeated and require a complete reversal of the Government’s border procedures.
Since the border was closed in March, entry by anyone other than returning Kiwis and residents has been at the discretion of the Minister. If a visitor’s entry is sufficiently important on compassionate or economic grounds, then the visitor can access one of the scarce quarantine spaces secured by the Government.
That kind of approach was necessary during Alert Level 4 lockdown when critical workers needed a way in to fix things like Wellington’s wastewater pipes. Now it is entirely backward.
When entry is allowed because it is the Minister’s priority, it is far too easy to let procedures slip. If the Minister said a film crew is vital, officials can let one member run back through a crowd to get a misplaced bit of luggage. If letting someone in to see a dying relative is pressing, it is hard not to extend further concessions when the case becomes even more heartrending.
Safety, under that approach, is too easily compromised. Obvious measures have not been taken and the entire country is now at risk.
Entirely closing the border might feel like the correct response, but when up to a million Kiwis live overseas with a right to return, safe procedures operating at scale are absolutely crucial.
The Government must reverse its policy. Rather than requiring Ministerial exemptions, visitors should be admitted whenever their entry is safe, or can be made safe – on a user-pays basis for non-citizens and non-residents.
Under a safety-first system, the Government would not manage quarantine. Instead, it would certify that private quarantine facilities and their procedures are safe, with rigorous audit processes strictly overseen. The Auditor General’s Office may be well placed for process auditing and compliance.
Providers breaching protocols without rapidly notifying officials would be subject to liability. And visitors breaching their obligations would be deported. It is easier for Government to hold private providers accountable when accountability in the public sector is weak.
Perhaps paradoxically, beginning with a principle of safety on a user-pays basis would strengthen safety while also allowing more visitors. Obviously, visitors from the Covid-free Pacific Islands and Taiwan would be allowed entry without quarantine as those places are safe. And more spaces in safer quarantine facilities could become available as necessary in response to demand in a user-pays system. It is a process that can safely scale as needed.
Safety first. It’s long past time.