Businesses are desperate for the Government to get its self-isolation travel pilot off the ground, so they can start sending staff to visit customers and sort supply chains overseas. But lockdown has stalled the process.

Within hours of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announcing a self-isolation travel pilot scheme on August 12, BusinessNZ chief executive Kirk Hope had messages from 90 different company executives.

They all wanted to know ‘Can we get on that pilot?’ Hope says. 

The sub-text: Can we get our critical staff overseas and back, avoiding the nightmare that is the MIQ system?

Over that first week, the total number of companies contacting BusinessNZ was closer to 140, Hope says. 

Under the proposed system, returning staffers would still have to spend two weeks locked away, but the game changer of the pilot is bypassing the MIQ system, Hope says. While everything around business travel is complex in a pandemic – including finding an airline to take people where they want to go, worrying about lockdowns and the safety of staff, and getting visas for overseas experts – MIQ is the biggest sticking point, he says.

“It is just so complex – booking a place, aligning it with flights. Being able to avoid the MIQ process would alleviate considerable pressure.”

Ardern initially said the pilot, part of New Zealand’s risk-based border opening strategy, would run from October to December and would involve “hundreds, not thousands” of participants taking short business trips overseas. Instead of going through MIQ when they returned, they would self-isolate under strict criteria.

Maybe at home, if that were possible without coming into contact with other people. Or perhaps in some other place sorted by their company.   

The Government was still working out the details, Ardern said, but expressions of interest for companies wanting to take part would open in September.

About now, in fact. 

But then Delta came, and lockdown, and everything just kind of stopped.

Minister Chris Hipkins still wants to “forge ahead” with the pilot. But when? Photo from daily briefing

It’s not that the pilot couldn’t go ahead as planned – increasing numbers of people are already double-vaccinated, and all the pre-travel testing and post-travel isolation would be perfectly possible even in lockdown. Both Ardern and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins have said the Government is still keen – “forging ahead”, as Hipkins put it.

The problem is that officials tasked with setting the criteria and taking expressions of interest are just really busy with other stuff.

“People doing this work are fully deployed on the current event with Delta,” Hipkins says.

When might it happen?

Dates for the pilot are now a moving feast.

“The Covid-19 Group within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) is continuing to work with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the Ministry of Health on the trial for a small number of vaccinated people travelling for business to go overseas and self-isolate when they return,” a Government spokesperson told Newsroom . 

“While the intention remains that we run a trial later this year, this will ultimately depend on the alert levels in place. We expect to have an update on this work in the coming weeks.”

For businesses hoping to get a trial underway next month and, if that went well, a wider scheme happening early next year, to hear it might take a few weeks just to get an update is frustrating, though they do understand the pressures. 

“The scheme still needs to be designed. The Government is figuring out priority issues.”
– Kirk Hope, BusinessNZ

Because the lockdown happened so soon after the announcement, it’s still early in the process, BusinessNZ’s Kirk Hope says.

“The scheme still needs to be designed. The Government is figuring out priority issues.”

Earlier this week, Hope wrote to officials with suggestions from the business community of how a scheme might work.

“We provided some material that might help them design it. For example, a set of rules around self-isolation, vaccinations pre-departure, and on-arrival testing,” Hope says.

Kirk Hope says self-isolation options should be available to any business meeting the criteria. Photo: Supplied

He says it’s too early to tell if the Government is considering big or small companies for the pilot and what the criteria they’ll use to choose the trial participants will be.

“We need to engage with them what their thinking is.”

However, once the pilot is finished, the Government should open the scheme up broadly to any businesses meeting the criteria, he says.

“Once you start to ration the system, you get into complex political issues. For example, if big companies could use self-isolation but small companies could only use MIQ, that could be a political problem.”

Overseas workers

While the initial pilot only involves New Zealanders and New Zealand businesses, Hope says companies are hoping a successful trial would lead to similar rules being applied to organisations trying to bring in overseas workers – whether that be employees for their own operations, or technical experts to help with a particular project.

Genesis Energy, for example, needs expert contract staff who live overseas to come to New Zealand from time to time to help with critical plant shutdowns and overhauls, chief operations officer Nigel Clark says. There are also “a couple who are Kiwis with a contract company looking to return to New Zealand”.

“It’s getting difficult to get foreign trade experts in to help us. What we need is more MIQ spaces and/or for it to be easier to get these experts into the country in the first place.” 

Genesis Energy needs to bring overseas technical experts into the country, Nigel Clark says. Photo: Supplied

A self-isolation model for businesses won’t just be good for companies. It could free up much-needed space in MIQ for New Zealanders coming home or returning from visiting family overseas.

Hope says there are a number of self-isolation models being used internationally to make sure people stay put, including geolocators, mobile phones and wristband monitoring. 

“There are obligations company directors and management have that mean there are potential belts and braces safeguards against people doing the wrong thing.”
– Kirk Hope

Using self-isolation for business travellers, rather than the general public, has the advantage that company directors and management would be motivated to make sure their staff stuck to the rules, he says.

“We’ve had discussions about this within the business community. If staff break self-isolation rules, it’s a health and safety risk and puts directors under the gun, so it’s a pretty serious issue. 

“There are obligations company directors and management have that mean there are potential belts and braces safeguards against people doing the wrong thing,” he says.

“Also, if it’s part of their job, and they are paid for being in isolation and can self-isolate in a place of choice that meets the criteria, that reduces the risk of people going rogue.”

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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