5 Aug 2020

Universities can take, isolate international students - Sir John Key

From Checkpoint, 5:23 pm on 5 August 2020

Auckland business leaders want the government to let wealthy international students back into the country via managed isolation and quarantine facilities run by universities.

Speaking at a crisis summit today, Mayor Phil Goff, Sir John Key and Rob Fyfe all signalled the need to expand quarantine facilities to make the most of New Zealand's Covid-19 free status, while also letting in the right people to keep New Zealand's economy afloat.

Sir John said New Zealand was facing a financial crisis, not a health crisis. He warned that a significant contraction of the economy was on the way - with the country's economic hub at risk.

"If Auckland slows down, the rest of the country slows down. If Auckland slows down, it matters."

Goff said some forecasts estimated 50,000 Aucklanders would lose their jobs due to Covid-19's economic impact - with 53 percent of the $7.8 billion of Auckland's tourist spend coming from overseas visitors.

Additionally, international students bring $2.8 billion to the city.

He said the Auckland Council had submitted a proposal to the government for a pilot which would screen high value international students, who can be quarantined in student hostels.

It would involve a 24/7 monitoring regime - on a user-pays basis.

Police at the Grand Mecure Hotel in Wellington, which is being used as a managed isolation facility.

Police at a managed isolation facility. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

He believed the border expansion should not be limited to students, with highly skilled workers also vital for keeping major construction and infrastructure projects going.

"Core workers can be given entry subject to strict quarantine requirements organised and paid for by the companies employing them, rather than the tax payer."

Sir John agreed - saying a trial run of international students could be a way of giving a 'lifeline' to struggling universities.

"We can turn that tap back on quite successfully, I'm not arguing at all that we should challenge that we don't want community transmission - we clearly don't - but in the same way that we welcome New Zealanders who are returning from overseas and can appropriately put them in quarantine and test them for 14 days, the universities... have the capacity to do that.

He said there would be a big financial onus on the universities to make sure they did the job properly - with longer quarantine periods and more rigorous testing also possible.

"There'd obviously be certification from central government and the appropriate authorities at health, but they do have big facilities to house students in quarantine.

"Why wouldn't you start, at least with a trial - start with a couple of hundred students and go from there as you build your confidence."

Former Air New Zealand boss Rob Fyfe, who is part of the government's Covid-19 response team, said he was hopeful there would be a significant expansion in the quarantine facilities in the new year.

He said international students would not necessarily be the first cab off the rank.

"I've been bombarded by people with requests and wanting to understand how they can get into the country."

He said while international students were a valuable resource there were also critical skills needed in the construction and infrastructure industries.

"There's other businesses that have essential technical workers that need to come in so it would be great to do a scan of all the demands that are out there and start prioritising."