Government announcements last week about the potential for a more open border from early next year were generally well received, and rightly so. From the perspective of the business community, it was particularly heartening to see explicit references to allowing more freedom around business travel.
Of course, during the tough times of our border closure, it is only reasonable that family reunification and other urgent needs for crossing our border take precedence. But as we move towards our next normal, it is sensible that we turn our minds also to business and economic travel of one sort or another.
There is a lot of talk about how effective video conferencing can be for doing things, but the reality is that business is still a contact sport – at least at senior level. It is very hard to create a new market or introduce a new product when you haven’t created trust with the people you are dealing with, and that is a lot harder to do when you are not face to face.
What is more, manufacturers need to maintain their equipment and traders need to set up new routes to market. This is often very difficult to do without physically visiting counterparties and getting the job done.
There were two aspects of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s statement last week that are game changers for business travel. The first is business travellers who are fully vaccinated arriving from low or medium risk countries being able to effectively self-isolate.
The fact is that if our existing MIQ facilities had been the only way for business travellers to return to New Zealand then that would really have been no border opening at all.
Business travellers need time certainty about when they are going to arrive back in the country, otherwise it is very difficult to undertake the travel in the first place.
The second big announcement was around further work concerning innovative Covid testing methodologies. If our public health officials can start to be more innovative around testing, business travellers are likely to be able to be tested faster and more regularly than they can now.
It will be important that the travel trial set to take place in the fourth quarter this year is used to gather the right information both from a government and business perspective.
This is so that when our borders hopefully reopen in the first quarter of next year, businesspeople will be able to move about as effectively and quickly as possible, while still maintaining the kind of public health outcomes that we all want.
Ardern’s announcement, however, did not explicitly mention several groups that are very important to the business community and to our economy and prosperity more generally.
No mention was made of what might be able to happen with the skilled migrants that so many businesses desperately need to ensure their businesses can continue to operate for the benefit of the communities they serve.
Likewise, international students are a massive source of wealth and prosperity in many communities in New Zealand. It will be important that the government thinks about how their safe arrival and continued study can be facilitated.
And last but not least, the tourism sector will be looking forward to seeing how the staged opening will be able to work for tourists who may well want to visit New Zealand.
As the rest of the world opens, albeit under very different circumstances to New Zealand, we risk losing our Covid halo of global attention. The world is moving on.
The kind of border opening foreshadowed last week will be a vital way for New Zealand to compete in attracting investors, migrants, tourists and students to our shores.
But some government statements, around migration, for example, suggest the drivers of lower migration to our country are less to do with Covid and more to do with ideology.
This ideology does not celebrate migration that leads to better jobs for New Zealanders and better outcomes for our communities. As our country starts to, hopefully, open early next year, the government will no longer be able to hide so much behind Covid as a reason not to let migrants in.
It is time now for a proper and balanced debate so that, as our borders open next year, the business community can understand where the government is heading with migration and make plans accordingly.
As we move towards our next normal, the prosperity of communities needs to be top of mind for government policy-makers, while continuing to ensure the health and welfare outcomes we all want.
– Phil O’Reilly is managing director of Iron Duke.
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