National MP Stuart Smith: Covid restrictions put wine industry at risk

OPINION:

Harvest season is a great time of the year, when growers are rewarded with the fruits of their labour.

In the wine industry, skilled people from around the world arrive in our wine-growing regions to help with the harvest – this is March through till May in New Zealand.

There are harvest operators who get the grapes off the vine, winemakers and cellar hands to make the wine, and RSE workers from the Pacific, along with backpackers, who help with the harvest and with other vineyard tasks.

When New Zealand is in winter, winemakers, cellar hands and harvester operators travel to the Northern hemisphere to work in wineries and vineyards, utilising their skills and expanding their knowledge and experience by doing two harvests in one year.

However, Covid has changed this. The New Zealand wine industry only just made it through last harvest season. With Omicron now in the community and our Government’s poor border response, this year is going to be a challenge.

With the border still closed to international travellers, overseas staff is not an option. There is the exception of RSE workers, but only a much smaller number than what is needed. The Government promised they would allow more workers in but they have failed to deliver.

Despite this, the wine industry has done its best to respond and put measures in place to help get them through another hard harvest season … until the proposed Omicron isolation rules were announced.

Isolation periods are 14 days if you contract Covid, and 10 days if you are a close contact. The wine industry quickly pointed out the obvious to the rules, that it is totally impractical. Wineries and harvest crews could be decimated with people being required to isolate at home, while grapes wither on the vine.

But this applies to other industries, such as dispatchers, forklift and truck drivers who ensure that food and other goods are delivered to supermarkets and dairies, people who stack the shelves, checkout operators, health workers, police and other emergency services. It is an impending disaster.

The Government responded to these calls by announcing changes to isolation rules for critical works, who are able to end self-isolation early if they return daily negative Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs). However, these new isolation rules won’t start until the next “phase” of the Omicron outbreak – which is when case numbers have significantly increased, but neglected to elaborate further.

Industries and businesses want certainty. If there is going to be a change to isolation rules, they need to know so they can factor this into their planning.

A solution to this problem was having RATs on hand to test workers before they started for the day. Industries have tried to manage the risk by ordering RATs, but Government policy has made it incredibly difficult for firms to get their hands on these tests.

This issue continues at a time when RATs are widely available around the world to extent that they can even be bought in vending machines. Meanwhile, New Zealand businesses continue fighting for access to a sufficient number to keep their workforce safe.

Harvest is a great time of year, however this year it could be a disaster.

Stuart Smith is National’s viticulture spokesman and a former grape grower, winemaker and chair of New Zealand Winegrowers.

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