Tim Pankhurst, chief executive of Seafood NZ and former leading newspaper editor, retires this week after 48 years in the workforce. He looks back on a final week like no other.

A week ago before the world changed we were fishing at dawn on the shore of the Rangaunu Harbour on the Karikari peninsula in the Far North.

As it became light we saw one other surfcaster beside a ute about 100 metres up the harbour.

Wandering up to see how he was getting on, he was anything but friendly.

“Have you got the virus?,” he demanded.

I laughed, thinking he was joking.

“I’m serious bro,” he said, backing away.

“I’ve got a 75-year-old mother and I need to protect her.”

“Mine’s 97,” was my inane reply before heading back to my companion to comment that the world was going mad.

That night, a well-connected friend in Wellington advised us to head home while we were still able.

That was Monday week ago, which saw us driving 1000 km in 13 hours on lightly trafficked State Highway 1. We listened on the way to the Prime Minister announcing a wartime footing, with a total lockdown at midnight in two days.

Normally bustling cafes were closing as we drove and one of the few options was McDonald’s in Taihape, our first such junk food in years. We had to admit it was surprisingly tasty but man, how much sugar do they put in those buns?

We had been a week at our idyllic hideaway at Rangiputa after spending a weekend at Womad with 17,000 others.

A couple of close friends had joined us on the Saturday, agonising over whether to fly from Wellington to Auckland and on to Kerikeri.

Now, 36 hours later all four of us were crammed in our car worriedly heading south.

There was so little space the obligatory pack of toilet rolls had to be broken down and stuffed into crannies. Every time we opened the door a dunny roll fell into the gutter.

There was just time for a late night shop for bread and milk at a near deserted Pak’nSave in Kilbirnie before the stored closed and it was back to work in the seafood industry on Tuesday.

Tim Pankhurst, in his element. Photo: Supplied

Seafood has been designated an essential industry but the message from Fisheries New Zealand, the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Government is “this is about saving lives, not businesses or jobs, so don’t stuff it up”.

Stringent measures have been put in place in factories – staggered shifts, fewer people on site, working distances strictly enforced, no stopping on the way to and from work, no shared transport, no vessel crew changeovers.

The safest place is on a deepsea trawler, one company head suggested.

New Zealand’s favourite takeaway – fish’n’chips – is off the menu but supermarkets are still being supplied with fresh fish. Exports are continuing although the live trade in rock lobsters, paua and oysters reliant on air freight has been hammered.

On a last trip into the office before the lockdown there is only one other car in the Mount Victoria tunnel. We toot, a fleeting connection.

In our neighbourhood the book exchange set up in the distinctive red former phone box by the pier is closed.

A printed message warns: STOP. Sorry folks but the book exchange feels a bit too much like a virus exchange space right now.

A promised Saturday morning opening to spread the books out in the sunshine for pick-ups only – no new deposits – is aborted by a cold, wet southerly.

There are lots of people walking, claiming the near deserted road as they skirt each other.

A large man marches down the white lines, loudly urging us in an American accent to keep safe and thanking us for respecting his space.

My frail mother, far senior to that of the man in the north, being well cared for in the Ryman Rita Angus village in Kilbirnie said she feels like a prisoner. Don’t we all. We’ll stand outside on the lawn and holler HOW ARE YOU?, we’d joked but we can’t even do that.

Our son has put his construction company staff on full pay for a month but will be stretched.

Our daughter in Melbourne is housebound, struggling with bronchitis and two young boys, her husband still not working from home. She marvels at the shambolic, confusing approach the Australians are taking, under playing the risk and being slow to respond.

That is down to an economy first approach, rather than this country’s prime concern for its citizens.

This week is my last before retirement, an end to 48 years’ fulltime work across media and the seafood sector. The functions have been cancelled but maybe we can raise a glass with colleagues via zoom and toast what has been.

This Covid19 virus, so sinister and unseen, drives a ghoulish daily toll.

We are all grappling with a new abnormal and these strange times are going to get a lot more challenging yet.

Tim Pankhurst, as Dominion Post editor, presenting at a parliamentary select committee with former Herald and now Newsroom co-editor Tim Murphy

Tim Pankhurst is a former editor of the Dominion Post and The Press, Christchurch and former chief executive of the NZ Press Association. He is now chief executive of the Seafood New Zealand.

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