Covid 19 coronavirus: Rob Fyfe – Caution needed on reopening borders as ‘fourth wave looms’

New Zealand will need to be cautious around reopening of borders as the world faces a fourth wave of the pandemic and Covid-19 numbers spike in the Northern Hemisphere says business leader Rob Fyfe.

“We’re far from out of the woods,” he warned on a Trans-Tasman Business circle panel discussion along withHelen Clark and Sir Peter Gluckman.

In July last year the Fyfe, Clark and Gluckman produced a report called Re-Engaging with the World.

In a “conversation paper”, the three wrote that while the Covid elimination strategy has worked, the country needed a plan to its global connectivity back.

Today Fyfe, who currently sits on an advisory group to the Government, said he and the business community were “very, very keen” to see the transtasman bubble opened up.

But it presented some serious challenges.

“We’ve relied so heavily on the border as our primary barrier against infection and as we move away from that as our primary defence there is some jeopardy.”

As we freed up the border it would be crucial that our testing regimes, contact tracing regimes and managed isolation processes were operating at an optimum state.

“I’m not confident we’re there at this point in time,” he said.

Despite that, the business community did need more clarity about what New Zealand’s ambitions looked like and what post-vaccinated New Zealand looked like.

The comments mirrored concerns from a group of business leaders – including Patrick Strange,Joan Withers; and Rob Campbell – who have publically called for the Government to provide more detail around the recovery plan.

Since then, the Government has appointed a group which includes Fyfe, Dr Debbie Ryan, Professor Phillip Hill, Dr Dale Bramley and Sir Brian Roche, to provide independent advice on the management and direction of its Covid-19 response.

Fyfe today said he was putting a lot of time and energy into the role and working to create better interactions between Government and business.

He said he understood the desire for more clarity from business.

But he also recognised the need for the Government to move cautiously and take public opinion with them.

“I’m less concerned about the timeframes but I want clarity. What are the triggers that allow us to move out of our current state?” Fyfe said.

“I think it is imperative we see more transparency and more communication between the Government and the private sector about what the triggers look like.”

New Zealand would need to take an “almost mercenary” to the border re-opening process, he said.

“We should be prioritising: who are our most important trading partners and how do we create a regime that’s going to be effective for movement between New Zealand and that trading partner,” he said.

“Who are the most important non-New Zealanders we want to let across the borders in terms of people wanting to relocate their businesses here, create jobs and move us up the productivity scale.”

“We actually need to be very focused very disciplined and to some degree quite mercenary about understanding about how we protect our interests going forward,” he said.

Clark was broadly supportive of what Fyfe said.

“While the word mercenary might sound harsh it’s right,” she said. “We need to be looking at where is the opportunity for value creation. If smart ways are available to move that along then we need to use them.”

“New Zealanders are incredibly risk averse,” Clark said.

“We’d all like to see a transtasman bubble but when you looked at what was happening with the outbreak in Queensland there was clearly still risk,” she said.

“Public opinion will weigh quite heavily on the Government’s mind.”

Looking further ahead, people needed to be prepared for a very different economy, she said.

“There’s no going back to what there was. The question is what the new normal looks like and whether we’re smart enough to navigate around it.”

Upskilling kiwis for vacancies in the labour market would be incredibly important, she said.

Both Clark and Gluckman emphasised the need to promote a technology-focused economy as we looked to move past a reliance on tourism and agriculture.

Gluckman emphasised that any plans to reopen borders would need to lean heavily on high levels of vaccination of New Zealanders and in particular the most vulnerable members of the population – including Māori and Pacific Island communities.

Clark was asked about going further and adopting the Australian approach of a private sector commission to assist with the recovery plan.

“Why not?” she said. “There’s no monopoly on wisdom.”

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