Covid 19 coronavirus: Steven Joyce: Government’s reasons for Oz bubble delay don’t wash

OPINION:

It could be called the case of the disappearing transtasman bubble, if it weren’t more serious.

Despite all Australian states and territories now comfortably meeting the New Zealand Government’s previously stated definition of having no Covid-19 community transmission, our government is making absolutelyzero moves to open a transtasman bubble, let alone smartly.

Nobody can travel from Australia to New Zealand without quarantine despite neither country having domestic transmission of the disease for weeks. That means no family visits for Christmas, no grandparents meeting new grandchildren for the first time, no Aussie tourists for decimated kiwi tourism companies, no boost to transtasman commerce, no respite for airlines or airports, nothing. The half-million Kiwis living in Australia remain effectively cut off from home. And for what reason?

When leading epidemiologists in both countries say the transtasman bubble should be open now, you know you have a political decision-making problem. It’s quite clear that we are no longer “following the science”.

The Prime Minister’s reasons for further delay, as reported in the Herald yesterday, are ridiculously weak. There were basically three of them. Let’s take them in turn.

The PM is reportedly concerned that Australia could have a looser definition of a Covid flare-up than New Zealand. It seems like there is an easy solution to this. New Zealand retains sovereign control over its borders and the Government could reinstate a quarantine requirement at any time. Having a bubble doesn’t mean always agreeing with Australia’s definition of risk.

The second problem is apparently that having fewer Australians in quarantine facilities would allow more people from other countries at greater risk to come into our quarantine facilities. This would increase the numbers of people in quarantine that could have Covid.

Let’s think about that for a second. Are we really keeping people arriving from Australia in isolation, even though it’s not necessary, in order to reduce the number of people from other countries in quarantine who could have Covid? Seriously?

An alternative view is that freeing up nearly half of the quarantine facilities currently taken up by travellers from Australia would allow faster processing of critical workers and Kiwis from elsewhere who are currently queuing on the other side of the border. Which would surely be a good thing.

The third problem identified is what happens to Kiwis already in Australia if we have to close the bubble again. Well, I’m thinking they would then have to use quarantine to come back. Which seems a no-brainer. And if this is an argument for not opening a bubble we will never open one.

That’s pretty much it. The Prime Minister is suggesting that we need to postpone our end of a transtasman bubble till at least February to deal with these supposedly intractable issues, which a competent set of people could solve in roughly five minutes.

Maybe thereare other unstated reasons for the delay. We know the Government is tired — maybe that is the problem. They could have decision fatigue. They’ve pretty much pulled up stumps this week. MPs have already headed home from Parliament and don’t plan to get up to full speed again for two whole months.

Meetings have been cancelled or postponed all over Wellington over the last fortnight because Ministers have been busy clearing their diaries for a long holiday. This might be understandable in a normal year but it is quite jarring during a global pandemic when people’s economic futures and familial cohesiveness hang on decisions left unmade.

Another reason could be concerns about the public service and its capacity to run the show. We know the Government isallergic to expanding the number of quarantine facilities because they are concerned for the availability of public servants to man them, and even more allergic to bringing in anyone from the private sector to assist. Maybe they are planning for quarantine facilities to have a rest as well.

A lack of political clamour for the bubble could be a further reason. The Opposition is currently off licking its metaphorical wounds, and the news media are about to head into their holiday hiatus.

A fear of what is happening in the Northern Hemisphere winter could also be at play.

However New Zealand and Australia are not the Northern Hemisphere. We have a great opportunity to increase the resilience of both our economies and societies by virtue of our current Covid-19 status. We should take it while we can. Who knows where we will be as we head into our winter, given that the vaccine cavalry will probably not arrive down under to any meaningful extent by then.

A likely contributing factor is the seemingly benign state of the economy, with things not appearing to be as bad as anticipated. It is forgivable for many of the public to be lulled into a false sense of security perhaps, but not the politicians. Our way of life is being propped up by unprecedented and unsustainable levels of monetary and fiscal stimulus; and this is no time for economic complacency.

A lack of any decision on the transtasman bubble is not the only sign that the Government is being too laid-back as we head into summer. As far as we know there has been no serious consideration of shortened quarantine periods as recommended by international experts; and outside of the Covid arena, other decisions around things like the aluminium smelter and our other shaky large industrial plants have not been heard about since the election.

Kicking the can down the road yet again on a transtasman bubble and other urgent issues smacks of economic and political self-satisfaction. Real people are being hurt by things as they stand, and the economic scarring in places like Auckland, Rotorua, Queenstown and Southland is also real. These people are all members of the fabled team of five million. We should be acting with urgency to resurrect their livelihoods while we have the opportunity.

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