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The future of NZ borders – Expert Q&A

Air New Zealand are temporarily suspending new international bookings to New Zealand to ensure that all arrivals can be accommodated in a managed isolation or quarantine facility.

But as more countries open their borders to foreigners, including Kiwis, the future of New Zealand’s global connectivity is an issue of growing discussion.

The SMC asked experts to comment on areas relating to the future of New Zealand’s borders, including:

  1. COVID-19 transmission
  2. Tourism
  3. Tertiary education
  4. Migration
  5. International trade

Professor Michael Plank, Te Pūnaha Matatini and University of Canterbury, comments:

“If we want to open our borders to more people, we have to accept that risk will increase. With current travel numbers, we expect around 12 cases per week to arrive at our borders and we are confident we can catch these with 14-day managed isolation. If we went back to pre-Covid travel rates, we would get more like 600 cases per week and it would be impossible to put all arrivals into managed isolation. A return to business as usual is not an option.

“Even a moderate increase in international travel could mean giving up some of the freedoms we have worked hard to get. We might need to move back to level 2 permanently or we might need regional lockdowns if an outbreak occurs like the one in Melbourne. 

“In evaluating trade-offs, it’s important to think about who benefits from loosening border measures and who pays the economic and health costs of increased risk of community transmission. Looking at Melbourne right now, it’s clear that the socioeconomically disadvantaged are bearing the brunt of the lockdown. And in other countries we’ve seen that the same groups often suffer the worst health impacts. We should not prioritise commercial interests over the most at-risk groups of our society.

“As time goes by, the prospect of a travel bubble with countries that have eliminated community transmission is getting closer. This would be much lower risk than opening up to countries that still have community transmission. As more countries join the bubble the incentive for others to eliminate the virus would get stronger. Any travel bubble would need clear criteria for who is allowed to travel and what would happen if a case is detected. This could be helped by rapid testing services that some countries are now offering at airports. We should be building capacity in systems like these that will provide confidence in safe travel.    

“Whatever path we take, we need to tread extremely carefully. If we do decide to loosen our border restrictions, we should do so gradually and start with lowest risk travellers. Events around the world show that the pandemic is far from over and that once authorities lose control of COVID-19 it is very difficult to get it back. Most countries in the world would gladly trade their COVID-19 predicament with New Zealand’s. Let’s not rush to join them too soon.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Mick Roberts, Professor in Mathematical Biology, Massey University, comments:

“New Zealand has succeeded in eliminating Covid-19. On a per capita basis we have had one of the lowest numbers of cases and deaths globally. This, of course, means that there is hardly anybody in the population with any immunity.

A recent paper from Sweden suggested that instead of needing 60%-80% infection-induced herd immunity, it could be achieved with 43%. Even countries that have had a higher number of cases are nowhere near that magic level. The WHO has Sweden with 0.69% of the population having been infected, and the USA with 0.83%. Even allowing for massive under-reporting, it is clear that no country has anything near ‘natural protection’.'”

No conflict of interest.

Professor C. Michael Hall, Department of Management, Marketing and Entrepreneurship, University of Canterbury, comments:

“New Zealand, like the rest of the world, is now trying to figure out how best to reengage with the global economy in a way that does not lead to a so-called second wave that leads to a substantial reemergence of COVID-19 and the associated interventions that would be required to keep it under control.

“Unfortunately, these decisions are being made at the worst possible times in terms of rational decision-making given that we are in the lead up to an election and therefore face a plethora of suggestions, many of which appear to have little to do with evidence-based policy and have more to do with personal goals, rather than the collective ones the country needs.

“Having used the natural moat around us to help restrict the entry of COVID-19 we now need to move beyond a fortress mentality. The reality is that COVID-19 is not going to be eradicated at a global scale and is going to become an ever present background disease. Therefore it needs to be treated like one.

“This means that rather than suggesting that the virus can be forever kept out, which it can never be, as no biosecurity system is 100% perfect, we need to start treating COVID-19 like other notifiable diseases which travellers bring in from overseas, such as malaria or yellow fever, or other coronaviruses such as MERS and SARS.

“This means changing some of the biosecurity measures in place in terms of arrivals and departures. This would include the arrivals card and the information that visitors are presented with. In the same way travellers get information about New Zealand trying to be pest-free they also need information about New Zealand being COVID-19 free.

“Technology is an important part of the response, but it needs to be matched by much better communication about risks, appropriate behaviours, and responses, which is arguably one of the weakest points in biosecurity system. Importantly, this does not just mean yet another app. Apps and codes of conduct can be useful, but the most significant way to change behaviours is by personal contact and the influence of your peers.

“Videoconferencing and the perpetual zoom meeting are not long-term replacements for business travel but are useful supplements. Nothing shows commitment better in a business relationship than meeting face-to-face.

“Holiday-makers too want to travel and the best form of assistance that New Zealand could give to Fiji and other Pacific nations is to help them restart their tourism industries. Similarly, the reopening of tourism links with countries that have a degree of control over COVID-19 such as Australia, Singapore and Taiwan would seem to extremely important.

“What will be required is the development of agreements over common biosecurity and COVID-19 protocols. These should then be able to be implemented once the level of COVID-19 cases reaches an agreed point of what constitutes “elimination” in terms of community cases of the virus, rather than international arrivals and returnees.

“New Zealand’s economy depends on international trade. Given that COVID-19 will never be eliminated globally it is time we started treating it in terms of the other notifiable diseases that come with international travel and start managing it accordingly. This by no means giving up safety and security concerns but it does mean coming up with realistic measures rather than ones that implicitly suggest that New Zealand can forever be a fortress.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor James Higham, Professor of Tourism, University of Otago, comments:

These comments are excerpted from The Conversation.

“Unprecedented border closures and the domestic lockdown have paralysed New Zealand’s $40.9 billion a year tourism industry. In the process, the vulnerability of the sector to external shocks and the tenuous nature of tourism employment have been exposed.

“Simply wishing for a return to normal, however, is not enough. The tourism rebuild must negotiate a delicate balance between immediate recovery and long term sustainability. A new steady-state equilibrium that generates employment and income while driving down tourism carbon emissions is required.

“The fact is, high carbon emissions are embedded in New Zealand’s tourism GDP. In the rebuild we must commit to measuring the carbon footprint of tourism, and actively manage forms of tourism that come with a disproportionately high carbon cost.

“Tourism carbon analysis is likely to point towards the growing importance of long-stay visitors, such as international students, who already provide 23% of total international tourist spending in New Zealand.

“Equally, it will be necessary to “de-market” and reduce long-haul, high-carbon, short-duration, and low economic yield tourist arrivals. Passengers who arrive on enormous carbon-intensive cruise ships – 9% of visitors but only 3% of tourism earnings – fall firmly into the least desirable category.”

Associate Professor Sara Walton, Work Futures Otago, University of Otago Business School, comments:

Full comments are available on Sciblogs.

“International education is purported to contribute approximately $4.5 billion annually to our economy and is our fifth largest export earner. It is a highly skilled industry operating in a global marketplace with New Zealand universities placing highly in global university rankings. The reputation of New Zealand being ‘safe’ due to our COVID-19 response is something that will help market New Zealand to overseas students.

“For a February 2021 start, we need to be planning for that now. Quarantining the students for 14 days is realistic given the amount of time they will be in the country to study. However, there are many questions. Who pays for the quarantine? Who monitors the procedures? Who supplies the medical tests and treatments? Where do we quarantine them?

“Let’s hope those making the decisions continue to gather the expertise needed, work with tangata whenua, and converse with the team of five million.”

No conflict of interest.

Peter Wilson, Principal Economist and Head of Auckland Business, New Zealand Institute of Economic Research Inc., comments:

These comments are based on the latest NZIER Insight report.

“New Zealand has put up a ‘no entry’ sign. As well as stopping international tourism; we have turned off historically high rates of inward economic migration, forgoing what has been at best a small positive impact on GDP per capita.

“New Zealand closed the border in response to COVID-19 to prioritise the wellbeing of everyone here. We have a unique opportunity to think about what conditions should apply when the border reopens. Long-running policy has been to respond to skill shortages by importing trained people rather than improving the skills of New Zealanders. We have increasingly given short-term visitors, like students and holidaymakers, broad work rights.

“When we reopen the border, we should take the opportunity to do so under policy settings that will improve the wellbeing of both New Zealanders and migrants. Three particular areas that should be examined, debated and resolved are setting migration policy so it respects the Crown’s Treaty obligations; the effect of migration on productivity, wages, and investment; and the costs and benefits of increasing some extended family migration.”

Conflict of interest statement: Peter’s work on migration has been financed out of NZIER’s self-funded Public Good research programme. Peter also provides professional consulting services to a wide range of public and private sector clients. 

Professor Ilan Noy, Chair in the Economics of Disasters and Climate Change, Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“A recent commentary by Koi Tū: Centre for Informed Futures largely advocates starting to plan for a slow re-opening of border restrictions. I couldn’t agree more with their sentiments. In principle, this is something we should have already started doing, so long as we have the required systems in place (and if not, we should build them).

“We should prioritise: (1) Opening to the Pacific Island Countries, as their economies are struggling, even though they are free of the virus; (2) opening up for foreign students and very long-term tourists/stayers who will bring significant value added into our economy (with quarantining paid for by them or their education providers);  and (3) specific business sectors for which personal international connections are essential.

“An election year is always a time of paralysis here, but one is permitted to hope that this year will be different.”

No conflict of interest.