After a person infected with Covid-19 and able to spread the virus worked two shifts at Kmart Botany late last week, more than 1,800 customers have been instructed to self-isolate at home for 14 days and get tested on the fifth and 12th day.

Now, Auckland has been plunged into Level 3 lockdown, which pretty much ensures they’ll follow that order. But what if it hadn’t? And what about for the first week of their isolation?

A study run in February 2020, prior to the impact of Covid-19, found that one in five New Zealanders couldn’t live for two weeks on their savings. How many of the 1,700 Kmart customers have enough savings to support them for 14 days?

The Government says that isn’t important, because it has provided cash for people asked to self-isolate. But that cash is a paltry amount compared to daily expenses that many face. It comes out as the same as the wage subsidy – about $590 a week, pre-tax. The median rent in most of South Auckland, where the latest outbreak is clustered, is above $500 – and in some cases above $600. That means people will have to spend most or all of their government money on rent alone, before we even get to food, utilities and other necessary expenses.

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says that good employers should make up the shortfall. Although they are not required to pay their employees to stay home if they don’t use annual leave, many employers will do the right thing and pay them some or all of their wages anyways. Some, however, won’t.

It only takes one bad employer of a person with very little savings who is meant to be self-isolating for them to end up at  work, struggling to make enough to pay the rent, and spreading Covid-19 in the community. It’s not an irrational decision either. Most of the 1,800 Kmart customers won’t have Covid-19. Most of them won’t even have any symptoms. And of the people who do have Covid-19, most of them won’t spread it to anyone else anyway.

When faced with a choice between paying the rent and providing for your family or following public health guidelines, many people would understandably pick the former.

None of this is to suggest that Case M, who prompted the alert level change over the weekend, would have stayed home from university and the gym if they had been paid more. But there are hundreds of other close and casual contacts in the community, linked to the Kmart or the KFC or other locations of interest, who also pose a virus risk and face tough decisions about following the rules or protecting their livelihoods.

This is a scenario that the Government knew could happen. In the Cabinet paper establishing the leave support scheme back in March 2020, Finance Minister Grant Robertson and then-Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said some people would be tempted to work despite the public health rules.

“These workers may feel compelled to go to work, even in light of the broadened requirements to self-isolate. This is especially likely for the lower paid, more vulnerable workers, where they are less able to meet ongoing costs of living. Many workers who are contractors are in this category, along with self-employed owner operators, and have no leave entitlements,” the ministers noted.

“Firms and workers will likely not have budgeted for contingencies or insured against pandemics such as Covid-19. If the costs are left solely to firms and workers, many will be incentivised against self-isolating. This will undermine our public health objectives.”

In response, they offered two options – a payment of $590 a week pre-tax, aligned with the wage subsidy, or a payment of the minimum wage (then $756 a week pre-tax). Cabinet evidently chose the former.

Robertson and Lees-Galloway also noted that the scheme may need to be overhauled if significant numbers of people are asked to self-isolate.

“Government will especially want to review the fitness for purpose of the scheme if widespread isolation or sickness breaks out. At that point, it may be that different or further interventions are required,” they wrote.

Yet, when asked whether the Government is paying enough to keep people at home, ministers from Hipkins up to Jacinda Ardern simply resort to saying that employers should do their fair share.

That’s a nice sentiment, but when lockdowns and livelihoods are on the line and when the Government has billions of unspent money in its Covid-19 recovery fund, forking out the cash now is worth it – particularly when it could avert a future, costly return to higher alert levels.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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