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Megan Woods. Photo: RNZ
Megan Woods, the minister in charge of quarantine and isolation. PHOTO: ODT FILES
The Government must seriously consider the extent to which New Zealanders will continue to fund the still-imperfect quarantine and managed isolation measures that provide the bulwark against the global pandemic.

It must do so with educated urgency, for such measures will be with us for much longer than many might expect. This is not about the coming days or weeks; it is about the coming months and almost certainly, the coming year.

As it stands, every person arriving in New Zealand from overseas is supposed to spend 14 days in quarantine or managed isolation, and pass their final Covid-19 test, before they are allowed to move freely about the country.

Many wait out their time in "quarantine hotels", a hastily developed and still-growing clutch of hotels in Auckland, Rotorua, Wellington and Christchurch. Further hotels in Dunedin and Queenstown have not been ruled out.

But wherever they are, they are not on a comfortable holiday and they do not pay for it.

This has been the case since April 10, when isolation became mandatory. It will have cost $81million by the end of the month; the Government has budgeted $298million to help pay for it over the second half of the year.

That is not an insignificant pot of cash, even in an environment in which billions of dollars have been spent on the immediate response to the Covid-19 crisis. It is a lot of money spent on people who, no matter their motivation or back story, either chose to, or had to, travel during a global pandemic.

On one hand, the quarantine spend could be considered another form of direct business assistance, this time to accommodation, food and associated service providers affected by the loss of international tourism. Filling rooms keeps people in jobs, as our border control measures keep the virus from our communities to give us and our economy a head-start as the world confronts the global recession.

On the other hand, the spend, as necessary as it is, might also be considered an unnecessary impost on taxpayers in a world in which even regulated users of a mandated service often have to pay their share.

There has been plenty of commentary to this end, especially as stories emerge of a small minority of recent returnees complaining about their accommodation and food, and about being bused from Auckland to Rotorua. In responses to similar stories published in this newspaper, some point out most of the New Zealanders who stayed at home have paid plenty, and sacrificed much, to make their country Covid-19-free. Quarantine comes at a cost, they say, and those returning should pay something that recognises the true and measurable cost of their welcome.

Recouping some of the costs is already planned in Australia, where the Queensland government will soon charge new arrivals up to $200 a day to help cover the cost of their mandatory two week, hotel-based quarantine.

Here, the Cabinet is due to discuss possible co-payment schemes as a means to minimise the spend on a programme already grappling with growing demand and the prospect of 4% growth every two weeks. How this would work is unclear. Up-front or staggered payments, part payments, an invoice with an extended payment time, or some form of tax-based end-of-year payment administered by the IRD may be worth considering — or eliminating.

Whatever the case, Megan Woods, the minister in charge of quarantine and isolation, says the Government must reach a fair and balanced resolution. But "fair and balanced" might not mean "equitable".

Citizens and residents have a right of entry to their own country, and there is a chance anything set in their way — such as the cost of quarantining them — could breach the Bill of Rights Act. This does not apply to non-residents, and so the Government could recoup the cost of the quarantine they share with New Zealanders, just as it already does when visitors use our hospitals.

On the face of it, this is not fair. But as the risk to New Zealand mounts, it is also not fair that taxpayers should shoulder all the burden, indefinitely.

Comments

This is spot on, there are Kiwi's here who have lost jobs and have stuck through hard times. If people who live in other countries are coming back because of this virus...they should pay the full amount. They have paid no tax, made no contributions and now they want to come back here. The taxpayer are being taken for a bunch of mugs, it's not a bottomless pit of money.

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