As Auckland faces a third or fourth week in Level 4 lockdown, officials discuss calls for more government funding to support business, free public transport trips and even priority for Aucklanders for vaccines and vaccinators.
Auckland’s economic agency says business “nervousness” at the effects of an ongoing Level 4 lockdown is possibly higher than last year, driven by the virulence of the Delta variant and doubts the Government has as much cash left to support firms and workers under stress.
The Auckland Unlimited chief executive Nick Hill told Auckland councillors during a Covid-19 briefing on Thursday the likelihood the city would remain at Level 4 “for quite some time” and the standing down of whole organisations if a Delta case was found created uncertainty distinct from previous lockdowns.
He said an indication from the Government that even if the rest of the country moves out of Level 4, Auckland’s border management would need to be tighter than in the past needed to recognise Auckland’s contribution to important food production and manufacturing supplies. “I don’t think that’s satisfactorily resolved.”
There was “a sense in the system there’s not as much cash in support for businesses” from the Government, despite the return of the wage subsidy (for two weeks) and introduction of a resurgence payment.
Hill said Auckland businesses knew, from last year, that demand for their products and services would bounce back after lockdown. The severe consequences of Covid-19 over the past 18 months also meant there had been “inevitable filtering out of the weaker businesses”. But the major issues over skill shortages even before lockdown meant business confidence would depend on the level of government response.
The agency’s director of investment and industry, Pam Ford, told councillors the lockdown had hit conference and trade shows hard, with some cancelling for the second, third or fourth time. “Eight days in, we are seeing businesses are feeling quite comfortable but as the lockdown goes into week three and week four, we will see a bit more uncertainty.”
Auckland Transport also briefed the councillors on lockdown’s effects. Executive general manager risk and assurance, Rodger Murphy, revealed AT had set up its crisis management team two weeks before the Government announced the outbreak, “on the expectation we would be going into lockdown”.
The big Auckland cluster and nearly 500 locations of interest had affected AT substantially, with 77 bus services caught in the list of locations for close contacts of positive cases and numerous drivers having to self-isolate. Coupled with the absence of drivers with existing vulnerabilities and an ongoing shortage of drivers the lockdown had created new pressures for the bus system. “We do have it under control,” Murphy said.
Passenger trips on public transport in the city had fallen from 240,000 a day pre-lockdown to 17,000 a day, which was less than 5 percent of pre 2020 Covid levels.
Councillor Richard Hills said before lockdown many bus seats on services he used no longer had Covid App QR posters accessible. He’d been told AT had put responsibility replacing those signs onto individual bus companies who did not have the resources to do so. “With so many bus locations of interest – most of them have not been signed in because there were no codes on the seats… “If that’s helped cause the spread and slowed down the contact tracing, that’s pretty serious.”
Murphy said AT had just reprinted its bus codes at a cost of $25,000 and they would be refreshed this week, with an expectation bus operators would step up and ensure they were in place.
Hills urged AT to look to make rides on public transport free, and lower barriers to use by essential workers. Mayor Phil Goff said he had written to Transport Minister Michael Wood seeking assistance from Waka Kotahi on such a subsidy.
Goff also indicated a push for Aucklanders, at the “epicentre” of the current outbreak, to be given priority for vaccine availability and for vaccination staff to meet demand in the city.