22 Sep 2020

Election 2020: National Party unveils border security plan that aims to get more arrivals into NZ

3:49 pm on 22 September 2020

National wants to boost the capacity of managed isolation facilities by allowing private accommodation providers to join the government-controlled network.

Watch the announcement here:

All private providers would need to meet safety criteria set out by the party's planned Border Protection Agency and would be able to charge people what they like for their stay.

National's Covid-19 border response spokesperson Gerry Brownlee has announced the second part of the party's Border Security Plan, and it aims to get more people into the country safely.

The party says the full plan is expected to cost $120 million over four years.

National says it will:

  • Implement a booking system for managed isolation facilities to manage more arrivals into New Zealand safely
  • Scale-up managed isolation capacity by allowing private accommodation providers to become approved service providers
  • Investigate streamlined travel arrangements for low-risk countries and territories
  • Invest in new technologies around Bluetooth tracing and rapid testing

National says its plan will "prioritise returning Kiwis while enabling essential and skilled workers, students and, eventually, long-stay tourists to book a place in managed isolation facilities".

All private facilities will have to meet or exceed required levels of safety, security, reporting, transporting, training and testing, as well as meet the associated costs.

Brownlee says private providers will be able to bid to join the managed isolation network.

Overall management or managed isolation operations will remain with the proposed border agency and if private contractors were running security, they will have to go through a rigorous process before being allowed to do so, Brownlee says.

Staff at the private facilities will also be subjected to Covid-19 testing like those at the current government-run sites.

The scheme will mean costs are "costs more evenly shared between those wishing to enter the country and industries who need overseas workers".

The current government-run facilities will not be closed down "any time soon", Brownlee says.

He used the example of rugby test arrangements when discussing investigating flexible travel arrangements for people from Covid-free countries or regions.

"Flexible arrangements were offered in the government's negotiations for rugby tests between the All Blacks and Australia.

"These options should also be considered, alongside public health advice, for Pacific countries that have no Covid-19."

The approach will allow New Zealand to "safely reconnect" with the world, Brownlee says.

"Priority will always be given to returning to Kiwis, followed by essential workers.

It was not going to allow wholesale entry to New Zealand.

"We have no desire to expose New Zealand to greater levels of Covid-19. Our lack of Covid-19 here is a massive advantage going forward. We take advantage of that by having very secure border policy that will gradually let more people come into the country."

National has previously promised to set up the border protection agency called Te Korowai Whakamaru with public health as its chief objective.

Labour highly critical

Labour Party spokesperson for managed isolation Megan Woods says National's plan is too risky.

"New Zealand cannot afford a Melbourne-style managed isolation programme that sees the virus spread into the community. We know that Covid is growing not slowing around the world. We are seeing more cases arrive into our managed isolation facilities with returnees.

"Our priority as a Labour Party is to make sure we are keeping New Zealanders safe. There's a number of measures ... that the government already has underway. We have announced that we will be trialling the Covid Card ... we've already talked about enhanced security systems we're putting into our managed isolation facilities.

"The issues around having a booking system for managed isolation - we're currently testing a system. That's work that's been underway for weeks and people will be able to use that in the coming weeks."

She said the border management system would "always evolve", but changing the rules for potentially Covid-safe countries was currently too risky.

"We are not willing to put New Zealanders at risk."

In terms of private suppliers of managed isolation, Woods says that the current 32 locations required 4000 staff between them.

"They are complex operations. We want to ensure that these are watertight and keeping New Zealanders safe. It is too risky to be thinking about facilities that [don't] have those provisions in place."

She says the policy "does not square with Judith Collins' vow to keep Covid out".

National proposal welcomed

Hospitality New Zealand represents roughly 600 hotels and motels across New Zealand.

Its national president, Jeremy Smith, says his initial reaction is that National's announcement is positive for a number of reasons.

"Obviously the accommodation sector is taking a beating with no international tourists and very little business travel so if you're outside of the government use for returning Kiwis, then it does create opportunity for us."

He says accommodation providers are doing it tough.

"We came out of level 1 at zero percent, we built it up to 10 percent then it was moving up to about 15 percent occupancy at low rates. And just when it looked like it was starting to climb, we went back into level 2 and it dropped back down to about 10 percent again," he says.

To survive, hotels need occupancy at about 65 percent on reasonable rates, he says.

He welcomed National's proposal to look at getting more people coming into the country.

In order for facilities to provide private managed isolation, there would have to be some investment in making sure guests complied with the rules.

"It would take a little bit of work but I think it's worth investigating."

Fears around the stigma of being a facility that had potentially hosted people with Covid-19 are a concern, Smith says.

"I think the scenario is if you are going down that road ... you have to forego building up your business in other ways."

National's plan 'not profoundly different from what's happening'

University of Otago epidemiologist professor Michael Baker told Midday Report it was great to see border biosecurity being discussed by political leaders for the first time in his working life.

However, it was hard to tell what was different in National's policy from what was already being done.

"The other thing is a lot of these are very technical points about the optimal time to test people, length of quarantine periods and so on. These are things you would really want to resolve with careful disease modelling and risk assessment. In some ways they are not even really political issues, they are technical ones," Prof Baker says.

"We already have a hybrid system at the borders. We are using, I think, 32 hotels where some of the staff are still from the private sector so it's all very much a mixed model."

National's plan was "not profoundly different from what's happening", he says.

While Prof Baker says the creation of a new border protection agency is interesting, he adds that if you are investing in it, "why not invest in an agency that can actually have a longer lifespan and manage other threats to New Zealand on the horizon".

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