19 Dec 2021

What I really want for Christmas: Kirk Hope

8:40 am on 19 December 2021

In the lead up to Christmas, RNZ is speaking to people who work to improve the lives of others, asking them what do they really want for Christmas? Not a phone, or a new car - but the things that would make a real difference to the people they support. In our third instalment, Michelle Cooke speaks to Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope.

Business NZ CEO Kirk Hope

Kirk Hope says the health effects of losing a business have been more damaging for some business owners than if they caught Covid-19. Photo: RNZ/ Dan Cook

Early in the pandemic, the government called for the creation of the world's smartest border. We would use technology and our "natural moat" to protect New Zealand against Covid-19 but look to a future where people and goods moved safely again.

That was in April 2020. Has it happened? No way, says Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope.

It's one of the main items on his Christmas wish list.

"We've sort of wasted two years," he says.

"Now, the government may say, 'well, we were waiting for vaccines and this and that'. You know, we knew a long time ago that there were other tracing technologies which could be added to the tracing technologies that we currently have with QR scanning codes... let's be the smartest border in the world, not just talk about it."

What would it look like?

"Having technologies in place which can very rapidly indicate where the person's coming from, define the testing regime they've undergone to confirm the veracity of it, have tracing requirements in place to ensure that you can follow those people where they're going around the country and that won't just be QR scanning.

"There are layers and layers of technology that can be used, including telecommunications devices, through a range of other mechanisms, using technologies to bolster what is a fairly manual contact tracing process at the moment."

New Zealand has been too slow to use some of the technologies available, such as rapid antigen testing, Hope says.

Overseas, people are travelling more freely, with borders "very stop/start" due to variants.

"But for us it's been wholly stop," Hope says. "It hasn't started."

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Business NZ chief executive Kirk Hope says some businesses in the tourism sector have been forced to close for good. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

He's concerned the Omicron variant may push back plans to open the border to New Zealanders living in Australia in mid-January.

Many in the tourism sector have been "decimated" by the pandemic, and they desperately need the border to reopen, he says.

"So I do think, you know, as we kind of get further through the pandemic, we can both reduce risk, at the same time as enabling more cross border travel."

The self-isolation period should also be reduced to three days for low-risk countries, as we won't have an effective tourism sector with a week-long stand-down period, he says.

There are also massive people constraints. While businesses might have products and services and customers to buy them - they sometimes don't have the staff to operate.

"So part of my wish list is to get very clear about the skills that we need in New Zealand and for the government to be much, much more open about who we bring into New Zealand to help the economy grow.

"We must think about what our immigration policy looks like, in a way that enables businesses to meet what is very clear demand for goods and services, and that's been heavily constrained. It will impede us massively going forward."

While some businesses have gone "gangbusters" this year, the tourism sector and the hospitality and retail associated with it continue to suffer most - and that's why a smart border is so crucial, Hope says.

"So you know, there are many people who have lost their businesses. And that has been incredibly challenging over this two-year period, for people's livelihoods and mental health - and in a much more negative health way than perhaps if they'd caught Covid.

"Because it's so ongoing for many people and in some cases there's simply no way out. They just had to abandon their business and take another job."

While there was a lot of focus on wage subsidies and resurgence payments, there has been a lack of sector-specific support, Hope says.

"So my wish list is that the government wake up and actually understand and walk a few miles in those people's shoes. Because the ongoing health implications of losing your business are extremely severe. It will have long-term repercussions."

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