Research Note - Effective Treatment: Public policy prescription for a pandemic

Dr Eric Crampton
Research Note
26 March, 2020

Unless effective treatment for the novel coronavirus Covid-19 emerges quickly, the world faces not only misery but economic depression. New Zealand will be immune to neither. The normal economic uncertainties of a downturn will be compounded by the uncertainties of a pandemic.

The New Zealand Government’s policy needs to directly boost capabilities in the health sector while providing the kind of appropriate economic support necessary when we’re all taking a lengthy staycation and some industries are put on ice.

Uncertainty about the duration of this crisis makes deciding on the most suitable policy difficult.

So, a combination of policies is warranted. Our latest report, Effective Treatment, explains our approach.

The first priority must be with health.

Increasing the capacity of the health sector to deal with peaks in numbers of Covid cases is important to reduce mortality and morbidity rates. But nobody quite seems to know just where the binding constraints in the health sector are. While credible newspaper articles warn about substantial shortages in equipment and incredible pressure on staff, official statements have been far more sanguine.

If there really will be shortages of critical equipment in four to six weeks, potential suppliers should know that today. Quietly shoulder-tapping likely suppliers may partially solve the problem but won’t provide the necessary scale of response. Suppliers can come from unlikely places. For instance, Italian hospitals are reportedly trialling ventilators reconfigured from scuba diving equipment. Simply announcing a willingness to purchase equipment – and the prices the Government is willing to pay – would allow potential suppliers to identify themselves. Serious companies aren’t likely to re-tool without the certainty of a contract. But they do need to know the demand exists and that they can get essential service status to do the job.

Rapid identification of equipment and skills necessary to boost capability in the medical system, combined with a wide call for assistance, would enable people and businesses to find ways to help. If the health system is not already doing so, it should be offloading less-significant tasks to helpers with limited training, to ease the burden on key medical staff. For instance, thousands of air cabin crew have been trained in first aid and will have plenty of time on their hands. With some rapid training, they may be able to ease some of the burden.

Additionally, the Government has asked retired health workers and health workers furloughed by the current lockdown to assist in Covid-response. It should also consider those foreign-trained medical professionals already in the country who have not yet been able to secure New Zealand medical registration.

Part of the cure for a pandemic is a sharp reduction in economic activities in areas not related either to pandemic response or critical areas like food supply. That’s why support for workers and firms is important. But the Government’s chosen wage subsidy scheme is not working well. Even if it can be extended to larger employers, it provides too little support to keep companies from laying off staff en masse.

The Initiative urges the Government to consider a version of Germany’s Short-Time Work support policy. That scheme allows firms to shift workers to a fraction of their normal hours along with an income top-up from the Government. That way, instead of laying off 80% of staff, a company could keep staff on 20% of their normal hours with little reduction in worker earnings.

This kind of scheme is better than either relying on benefits or starting up the sometimes-promoted universal basic income (UBI). A speedy reboot of the economy when this is over matters. That is much harder to do when companies must rebuild hard-earned experience and skills from scratch. The Short-Time Work support policy maintains both workers’ incomes and their links to employers. It targets support to those workers whose hours are cut, rather than spreading support broadly to those far less affected. Simply put, it works better.

Some tax provisions can also be eased. Individuals and firms should be allowed to combine the 2020/21 tax years and temporarily suspend their PAYE collection and Kiwisaver contributions. This would immediately provide more cash in hand everyone. Companies staring down provisional tax assessments based on last year’s earnings could instead defer everything to next year.

Simultaneously, the Government could help reduce business’ fixed costs that otherwise might have compelled them to shut down. It could also cover Council rates bills for firms in financial distress, averting a major hit to the local government purse as well. And access to credit can be improved, especially over the longer term as wage support to employers may need to ease.

Finally, a modified version of the New Zealand Student Loan programme should be made available to non-students to help bridge any remaining income gaps. It has the advantage of having already set provisions for income-contingent repayment when the crisis passes.

But financial support is not the only way the Government can and should help.

Regulations that were no real barrier to getting things done in normal times can be insurmountable in a pandemic. For example, some airline pilots require time in simulators to maintain certification, but the necessary simulators are in Australia. In normal times, this just doesn’t much matter – pilots can roster onto an Australia route when and as necessary. This doesn’t work now. But the Government can’t be expected to identify every barrier proactively. It needs to rely on business to highlight the obstacles as they come up using lines of rapid communication with regulators who can suspend or modify them during this crisis.

And this is no time for policy or regulatory changes which are not related to the pandemic. The Reserve Bank and Commerce Commission have already postponed theirs. But Parliament’s Select Committees are still asking for submissions on non-urgent legislation. Doesn’t the Health Select Committee have better things to do than consider the regulatory framework for vaping? Some legislation may be urgent enough to require submissions during the Level 4 alert, but everything else should be quarantined.

Obviously, the Government should borrow the funds it needs to do all this. But this will require maintaining a disciplined approach to any spending lines unrelated to the pandemic. Entrenching new ongoing commitments would complicate a return to prudent debt levels after the crisis and make it harder to borrow the funds necessary for responding to the pandemic.

Hopefully the four weeks of Level 4 lockdown gives the Government enough time both to knock back the pandemic and adjust policy to help us through the coming economic turmoil. We need to adopt more effective treatment.

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