Confusion over the new definition of ‘essential services’ is forcing some banks to make a blind call to help those who can’t use online services.

There are concerns vulnerable customers are being put at risk by wholesale changes to the rules over which businesses can operate face-to-face services in alert Level 4 

The Government has changed the way it defines essential services after widespread problems in last year’s long lockdown. Last week it published a list of sectors whose employees are allowed to go to work, but glaring omissions have emerged like financial services and livestock support.

Late last week, Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield gazetted a notice adding banks to the list, after the Banking Association expressed concern about the impact on business and vulnerable customers. 

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That provided clarity that, for instance, computer technicians can go into work to keep the servers running, and security contractors in armoured vans are allowed to load up the ATMs with cash.

But some banks say they still aren’t certain of the circumstances in which they’re allowed to open their branches to serve the small group of elderly or disabled customers who struggle to use online and phone banking.

The Financial Services Council said it would seek clarification on the definition of essential services so that the companies in the sector could continue to support clients, support and manage staff, and operate their businesses legally.

“Of course guidance from the Government, the Ministry of Health and the regulators is key as we all adapt to the new challenges of  the current lockdown,” chief executive Richard Klipin told Newsroom.

“A number of banks are taking the view that they’ll open on reduced hours, essentially for customers who are unable to deal with online banking and need to go into a branch.”
– Roger Beaumont, Bankers’ Association

Several big banks have made the call to open, regardless.

From this week, 44 ASB branches will open on Tuesdays and Thursdays – here’s the list. Westpac has published a list of 37 branches that it will open on Wednesdays. Kiwibank will open 49 branches and nine service agents would be open under reduced hours on Wednesday and Friday. And ANZ will open some branches from next Tuesday.

Grey Power national president Jan Pentecost said she was getting worried calls from a small group of members who weren’t able to use online and phone banking. Some people with physical and intellectual disabilities faced the same problems.

She said it was important face-to-face banking services be made available to these people; even then, there would be a small group who were too worried about Covid-19 to even venture into those banks. 

She was concerned about how vulnerable they were. There might be only a few hundred of those, and one option could be for PPE-clad, socially-distanced essential services bank workers to visit them at home – a bit like the home banking services usually provided to higher value rural and mortgage customers.

The gazette notice imposes a condition that face-to-face customer interaction will be permitted for essential financial services only.

“This area needs to be fixed up quickly.”
– Nick Crang, Duncan Cotterill

Bankers’ Association chief executive Roger Beaumont, whose organisation sought the waiver, said banks had to interpret that notice themselves.

“A number of banks are taking the view that they’ll open on reduced hours, essentially for customers who are unable to deal with online banking and need to go into a branch,” he said. “We think it’s a very small group of customers who fall into that category, for whatever reason.”

He noted that the banks provided phone services with real people, who could provide most services that would be offered by a teller at a branch. 

It’s understood ANZ’s phone contact centre had 40 percent less traffic last week than in the first week of the 2020 Level 4 lockdown, which may indicate that more people feel equipped to cope with banking online.

“Face coverings will need to be worn inside branches, visitors will have to scan or sign in, and we’ll be controlling entry to maintain social distancing.”
– Gina Dellabarca, Westpac NZ

Gina Dellabarca, Westpac’s general manager of consumer banking, said the bank was urging customers to bank from home or use ATMs wherever possible at alert Level 4, to help limit the pathways to spreading Covid-19. And its contact centre team was available seven days a week. 

“However, we’ll be opening 37 branches from 10am to 1pm on Wednesdays so we can assist vulnerable customers who need help with critical services.”

Available services would include getting new EFTPOS cards and PINs, registering for online banking and carrying out essential cash transactions for customers who had no alternative options.

“Face coverings will need to be worn inside branches, visitors will have to scan or sign in, and we’ll be controlling entry to maintain social distancing,” she said. 

Kiwibank said it too would limit branch and service agent operations to essential services, in reduced hours. “During lockdown branches that are open will only provide essential and urgent services such as replacement of bank cards, ID verification and over the counter cash services,” a spokesperson said.

An ANZ spokesperson said the bank’s plan was to reopen some branches early next week, for essential transactions only. “But we’re reviewing the situation daily,” he said. “We’re taking Covid-19 restrictions very seriously and are balancing the needs of our customers and the safety of everyone in our branches.”

Law firm Duncan Cotterill has published guidance on which businesses may open, and which may not.

Partner Nick Crang told Newsroom banks and other aspects of the financial system were critical to enabling the economy to function. “This area needs to be fixed up quickly,” he said.

Initially, he said, the financial services sector was omitted from the list, and the website and had said banks could not operate. When concerns were raised, the Director-General granted an exemption – with conditions.

There is also a far-reaching addition to the list of those allowed to operate: any businesses or services that are necessary to maintain other essential alert Level 4 businesses or services. So if an essential business says it needs its cleaners and caterers and ballpoint pen suppliers in order to keep operating, then those cleaners and caterers and suppliers will also be designated essential.

Crang said that was likely to extend to many financial services and livestock workers, but further clarity would be helpful to employers and workers.

“In relation to livestock support, the scope of what primary sector activities are allowed remains unclear. Schedule 2 provides that primary industries – being food and beverage processing, packaging and production for both domestic consumption or export, plus the relevant support services, and veterinary and animal health and welfare services – are allowed to operate under alert Level 4.

“However, those in the primary sector know that there is a much greater scope of activities within the industry than what seems to be defined in the order.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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