NZ's export sector is getting hammered because of decisions about vaccinations and MIQ places.
Some exporters have done remarkably well through the Covid pandemic so far, but strains and cracks are starting to appear in a sector that the economy needs to be performing at its best.
Government ministers talk about an "export-led recovery": they are planning a trade mission to Australia, pursuing new free trade agreements, and have allocated an additional $216 million to NZTE to support more exporters in a more fulsome way. They have also invested $60m in the World Expo in Dubai and are encouraging exporters interested in the region to leverage off that taxpayer investment.
Exporters are grateful for that support, but the problem is that exporters can't travel easily or be prioritised for Covid vaccines, even if the travel is for critical business purposes.
There is nothing stopping a business traveller leaving New Zealand - they just can't book an MIQ spot to get back in!
Ministers have assured us there is a 10 per cent allocation of rooms set aside in MIQ for business travellers, but there is no way for them to achieve a booking apart from competing with everyone else on the MIQ booking website – hitting "refresh" around the clock in the hope that more rooms will become available.
We have companies that have no choice but to send staff overseas for critical business travel and they are desperate to get them vaccinated to ensure their safety. Examples include technical staff to oversee the installation of large post-harvest machinery that is critical to other countries' food supply chains.
We have firms that manufacture and then need to install machines that produce liquid cryogenics and medical grade oxygen systems for countries in desperate need, including India, Ethiopia, USA and England. Those staff will be working in the highest-risk environments doing critical Covid-related work and we can't get them an early vaccination or an easy way to book MIQ spots for their return.
We have a company that needs to install a machine that produces structural purlins, needed for housing in Vanuatu and Noumea - but they can't get any travel certainty.
We have a very specialised high-tech medical manufacturing company that has a once-a-year trade show they need to attend, but they can't get any MIQ spots for their return. In June 2020 New Zealand signed a Joint Ministerial Statement to facilitate the flow of goods and services as well as the essential movement of people alongside five key trading partners including Australia, Canada, the Republic of Korea, Chile and Singapore.
The Ministerial Statement includes the following: "Facilitate the resumption of essential cross-border travel … to allow, on an exceptional basis, essential cross-border travel for purposes such as maintaining global supply chains, including essential business travel…"
Another Joint Ministerial Statement was initiated in April 2020 by New Zealand and signed by 12 countries to "maintain open and connected supply chains … and work closely to identify and address trade disruptions with ramifications on the flow of necessities".
To uphold the commitments in the Joint Ministerial Statements, New Zealand has an obligation to support those involved in time-sensitive, critical or essential services offshore, as these are crucial to maintain open and connected global supply chains and the delivery of essential services.
This support needs to include early access to vaccines for those undertaking these tasks, and time-sensitive access to MIQ.
The Government seems to be able to make things happen when it comes to entertainers, sports stars, film-makers and the like, but the system is overly political and hard to navigate for businesses needing to re-engage with the world.
It's not just outgoing - it is incoming as well, whether that is specialist skills or business partners needing international experts to test machinery or seed varieties in NZ.
Exporters have been working hard to keep their customers, but as other countries start to open up they could find their customers going elsewhere.
With total exports down 25 per cent for the March quarter 2021, we need to have a better plan around safe travel for business.
- Catherine Beard is executive director ExportNZ.