Opinion piece: Immigration Lawyer Aaron Martin from NZIL
As the government unveils its plan to trial self-isolation instead of MIQ, making businesses pay to quarantine offshore workers entering the country appears likely.
When COVID first showed up on our shores, we went hard and we went early. The strategy? To flatten the curve, save lives, and reduce the likelihood of a community outbreak. Another core objective: to protect New Zealand’s health system from collapse.
The Associate Minister of Health’s announcement yesterday discussed further strengthening borders and bolstering health defences. The government has been advised to undertake preparatory work, “such as expanding health system capability.”
Well, what have they been doing for the last 18 months?
Border controls are hurting health care and infrastructure efforts
We’ve heard reports of South Island hospitals being unable to put patients in beds because they don’t have enough nurses. Auckland Hospital has been plagued by resignations, with many nurses being lured to Australia. Our primary defence – our border system – has caused doctors and nurses who were seeking residence (and who already worked in our health system) to pack up and leave! The closure of the trans-Tasman bubble must’ve brought a sigh of relief to government ministers.
To soften the economic blow of the pandemic, the government announced last year that it would invest heavily in infrastructure. This week, a crisis meeting between construction sector representatives and government took place, highlighting concerns around delivery in the face of supply chain disruption, escalating prices, and chronic skill shortage.
Border controls will be adjusted to “minimise risks to New Zealand posed by the COVID-19 virus.” The policy lists five main considerations in achieving that objective, the last and lowest-ranked one being “risk of significant adverse economic impacts.” To minimise adverse economic impacts, the government announced border exemptions to facilitate entry for those in the critical purpose category.
Contradictory words and actions, confusing policy
Therein lies the start of contrary messaging: A border system intended to protect against COVID is itself delivering significant adverse economic impacts. How? By preventing businesses from accessing the skills they need to grow and by undermining health system enhancement.
Even if you’re fortunate enough to get a visa under the current critical purpose regime, you face a five-month wait to gain entry due to the disaster that is MIQ. As a trading nation, when trade routes and supply chains are disrupted, it is vital that we maintain international connectedness. Yet our businesspeople cannot feasibly travel because they, too, face a five-month wait trying to get back through MIQ.
It appears that the government is trying to paddle its waka in two different directions. If you seek to expand health system capability, why are you implementing immigration policies that actively undermine that? If you’re trying to shore up economic impacts through investment in infrastructure works, why do you prevent access to the international skills needed to deliver on those projects? Why do you create an MIQ system that impedes the ability of New Zealand businesspeople to travel to support their offshore markets and supply chains?
Today’s announcement should have caused business to prick up its ears. It is clear from the plan – if you can call it that – that opening the border is going to depend on local vaccination levels. That puts an impetus on employers to get employees vaccinated.
More importantly, the delay in mandatory employer accreditation, now set for introduction in mid-2022, appears to dovetail nicely with the government’s staged programme for reopening the border. Depending on their risk assessment of the country of origin, vaccinated individuals entering New Zealand may either self-isolate (medium risk) or not require quarantine at all (low risk), if they return a negative test result.
Pushing the burden onto accredited employers – yet again
I predict that the mandatory accreditation regime will include a pastoral care requirement: Employers who need workers from overseas will be responsible for planning, providing, or facilitating modified managed isolation that meets Ministry of Health guidelines.
Whether the government provides the facility and the employer pays for it or whether the employer both provides and pays, for example, through private rental of appropriate accommodation, remains to be seen. It’s clear that the government wants employers to shoulder the burden. But that will disadvantage many small to medium businesses, especially if it requires them to, say, rent suitable accommodation in the current market.
A meaningful partnership will require clear, early communication from the government as to what is expected of businesses. What businesses can do how, however, is encourage staff to get vaccinated to demonstrate that they have insulated their employees from risk associated with expatriate workers entering the country.
If COVID response were an Olympic event, as Jacinda suggested in the televised briefing, our points score will depend on our dismount. If we don’t get this right, we won’t be on the winner’s podium – and attracting skilled workers from overseas is now a highly competitive sport.
The government must move in a consistent, planned, and targeted manner to support businesses and minimise the ongoing impact of the pandemic.