Payment regime welcomed

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters in Invercargill. PHOTO: LAURA SMITH
New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. PHOTO: LAURA SMITH
Welcome home, soon-to-be long-term taxpayers. We trust you will do your bit to help your country keep Covid-19 at bay, and help our communities rise above the global recession.

As to the rest of you, well, you have every right to take a holiday but you must understand this comes at a cost. Sure, you may have spent a lot of money on your trip, but many of your fellow New Zealanders do not want to subsidise your two weeks in a hotel.

You will have seen many, many comments on social media from Kiwis who do not think their tax dollars should continue to fund the entirety of the increasingly costly mandatory isolation and quarantine regime. Some are dreadful but others are borne from the belief not all returnees are here for the right reason.

For them — and for many of those people who make official policy — the right reason is to return home, full stop. The wrong reason, whether or not it is why most of the 32,000 who have returned home since March 26 came back, is for a short-stop holiday.

This position is not confined to the chattering classes or the social media masses. It is now Government policy, promulgated as politicians of nearly all shades continue to talk tough about the rights and responsibilities of those spending their first 14 days in New Zealand in managed isolation or quarantine.

After weeks of pressure, the Government yesterday announced the end of the blanket, free provision of quarantine spots in what remains the first and most critical line of defence against a virus that seems resurgent in many of the places from which New Zealanders are returning.

The new policy seems reasonable when measured against sometimes extreme public expectations, the firm belief the team of five million did not beat the virus so that it might beat up on its own citizens, and the clear need for a fair user-pays plan to contribute to a quarantine regime that seems to have no end date, in a country that has nearly a million of its citizens overseas.

It will impose a managed isolation and quarantine charge on people who leave New Zealand after the legislation comes into effect, and those visiting New Zealand temporarily. They will have to pay $3100 per room and $950 for each extra adult and $475 per child.

There will be mechanisms to allow charges to be waived in full or in part, especially in cases of hardship and if the short-stay visit is for a funeral or illness. This "fairness" provision provides for the aims of the compassionate leave waiver already used, with varying degrees of success, to let people leave isolation early.

Travellers intending to return for good, or for at least 90 days, will not have to pay. The rationale there is that they will become taxpayers, and that they will shoulder the burden of the scheme, and of the country’s Covid-19 fightback, with the rest of the taxpaying public.

The extent to which this is "fair" will be up for rigorous debate. The minister in charge of quarantine, Megan Woods, was right when she said most New Zealanders would have a hard time paying for holidays and business trips — but what of people who travel for more nuanced reasons?

What of those who leave to pack up their lives ahead of their imminent, permanent return home? Should fly-in, fly-out workers in Australia or the Pacific Islands have to pay to visit their families between rosters? And what about children worried about their ageing, isolated parents?

Coalition partner New Zealand First yesterday said the policy created a fresh injustice for existing taxpayers, who will have to pay if they leave the country, even as their tax dollars pay for the quarantine of those who have been overseas for a while, but who then elect to return home for good.

Estimates suggest the plan will recoup less than 2% of the overall cost, reinforcing Winsont Peters’ position it is simply not enough.

This remains the view of many, but the new policy at least recognises returning New Zealanders — whose loss was once lamented as a "brain drain" — should be welcomed home to contribute to their country.

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