Border policies should fuel debate

Our border is the first line of defence against the global pandemic and it is crucial it is sustainably managed for our long-term safety and future prosperity.

Much of our response to Covid-19 relies on what happens there. It is where we fend off the virus, and where we control our links to the outside world.

As it stands, the response is being managed by a suite of government agencies and private sector providers hurriedly thrown together to meet an emergency.

The likes of the Defence Force, Customs and Immigration are working alongside district health boards, iwi, hotels and bus companies to keep New Zealand safe.

Their work and their relationships with each other have evolved over months, to the point our border is managed entirely differently to what it was pre-Covid-19.

They have helped shape a remarkable, speedy response to a sudden and now constant threat. Even with the missteps, we should be proud of what they have achieved.

The pandemic has not passed, but enough time has passed for policy makers to consider whether a multi-agency response is sustainable into the ill-defined future.

Few are game to commit to timeframes but it seems clear the virus will maintain is choker-hold on international movement for months, possibly even years.

Even if a game-changing vaccine were just around the corner, we must be prepared for gradual change and to respond immediately to flare-ups and resurgence.

The pandemic and its effects will resonate for years. So, our border control measures must be sustainable and affordable, for this and future pandemics.

How we manage the borders into the next term of government has morphed into an election issue comprised of many interrelated parts. Rival political parties promise changes to everything from when and how often arrivals are tested, through to where they are quarantined and who pays for it.

There are proposals to outsource managed isolation to private providers, and to shorten the quarantine time for people from countries with a lower risk profile.

The National Party yesterday added more to its alternative border security plan with a suite of proposals it says will get more people into the country, safely.

It wants the private sector to shoulder — and recover — some of costs while boosting capacity to get more foreign workers and students through the process.

They would be overseen by a single border protection agency, Te Korowai Whakamaru, which would co-ordinate the border response and develop a specialised workforce capable of responding to future outbreaks.

It would not replace other agencies, but it would gather in one place the intellectual capital needed to keep the response going.

The Government last month said introducing a new level of bureaucracy would be a ‘‘destructing exercise’’ in the middle of the response. But with every passing month, it is seems clear we are merely in the middle of the start of a response that will have to be sustainable in the long term.

Election-time policy pitches can win votes, but they can also challenge politicians of all stripes to see how new thinking makes things better. If not now, politicians will need to spend time after the election ensuring the border response can deliver what New Zealand needs for months, years into the future.

The flow of people and commerce will need to continue without compromising safety and the country’s low-risk status, as we try to grow our pandemic-hit economy.

In the medium term, our border control measures will need to have the capacity to continue to respond to employers’ need for workers that cannot be found on the domestic job market.

Essential workers, fee-paying students and, over time, tourists will need to be allowed into the country in sufficient numbers, and with sufficient safeguards, to help fuel the fightback.

The next phase response must be responsive, upscalable and sustainable to ensure what happens at our borders provides even more benefit to the country it also protects.

Comments

To be frank, I am over hearing politicians make calls for privatisation and rehashed ideas at the border. There is no rule book on how to handle the pandemic, although there actually should have been one written after SARs. We all saw how relying on individual honesty and integrity worked, 2 women spring to mind; how private security for managed isolation failed; how Covid testing prior to leaving a foreign country and issuing a "covid passport" let the UK down big time; how ignoring it completely to the half pie measures failed and then came all the bickering about who is responsible. Unless this current gaggle of politicians have a silver bullet, they can just stop making promises that cannot be kept. Time is up and we don't have the luxury of wasting even more on failed ideas.

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