New Zealand business is increasingly at odds with the Government's strategy to eliminate Covid-19 and its lockdown of roughly one third of the country in pursuit of that aim.
Auckland Chamber of Commerce head Michael Barnett said both his own view and the views of his members have shifted since New Zealand's first lockdown in March.
Containment, meaning suppression of the virus, he said, remains important, "but this approach of lockdowns and reaching zero [cases] is simply not sustainable".
Barnett's view chimes with dissenting sentiments increasingly voiced by a widening range of businesspeople.
On August 16, Wellington-based international financial consultant, Geoff Mortlock, penned an open letter calling on the government to produce "meaningful cost/benefit analysis in assessing the different policy responses to the pandemic".
Mortlock called for costings for different calibrations of lockdown and assessment of the cost and benefit of different response objectives, such as elimination versus managed suppression.
"I'm not saying elimination is necessarily the wrong objective," Mortlock said, "but I am skeptical about it."
Mortlock is concerned that a proper weighing of costs and benefits has not been factored into Cabinet decision-making.
Last week, following the confirmation of new cases of community transmission of the virus, the greater Auckland region was put in level 3 lockdown, wherein business is heavily curtailed, most school children are kept at home, and strict social distancing is enforced. The rest of the country was moved to alert level 2, requiring greater social distancing. The settings are to remain until at least August 26.
A survey of Auckland businesses by the Chamber found that more than half are now operating at 50 per cent of normal levels or less. Private sector economists calculate a loss to the economy in the current setting of roughly $500 million per week.
Before the latest lockdown, polling of the general population showed broad support for the Government's strategy. And it remains the case that many economists and businesses support elimination, though there has been wide criticism of recent government blunders in managing the border.
This week, director general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, batted away a journalist's question about whether the cost of lockdown is worth the benefits. "I'm sure all New Zealander's would prefer to go back to level 1," Bloomfield said.
Auckland-based Dean Humphries, however, questions whether the lockdown is worth it.
Humphries, who has more than 30 years of experience in the property and tourism sectors, said the closed borders at level 1 are devastating his industry. The views he expressed to the Herald are personal, not those of his employer.
This lockdown, he said, feels different: "I think there's a growing number of people, particularly in the business community, who wonder if we're going in the right direction aiming for elimination. The right policy three or six months ago, might not be the right policy now."
Humphries said lockdown made more sense to him in March, in the face of great uncertainty, especially when it appeared New Zealand's health system would be overwhelmed.
Preparations in the interim mean that is far less likely now, and treatment of people seriously ill with the virus appears to be improving elsewhere in the world.
Five months on, Humphries said, he's thinking more about the future in which there is hope for but no surety of a vaccine.
"We're looking ahead, as humans do, and we're asking, what does this current strategy mean for our lives and our livelihoods? It's not just about 2020 now, it's about 2021, it could be about 2022. Elimination doesn't seem realistic ... that's becoming very clear to most people I'm talking to."
Similarly, Glen Heath, CEO of property development firm Mansons TCLM, suggested New Zealand's strategy of zero cases of Covid-19 needs to evolve.
"We actually don't want to be the only Covid-free nation as that would be a poisoned chalice and compel us to be isolated from the rest of the world for many years. That's not sustainable or desirable. We're backing ourselves into a corner by clinging to the elimination strategy," he said.
Heath is also concerned that the Government is not using tools it commonly deploys to weigh the trade-offs entailed in policy decisions. For example, he said, modelling should tally life years lost, since the disease produces a death and hospitalisation rate that is heavily skewed to the elderly and those already infirm.
Treasury spokesman Bryan McDaniel confirmed that the department has undertaken no cost/benefit analyses related to Covid-19 policy settings. Similarly, there has been no such work at the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, a spokesperson confirmed.
McDaniel pointed only to a series of economic scenarios the department released in April. The scenarios attempt to understand the cost to the economy of different Covid-19 alert levels.
A single cost/benefit analysis was undertaken by the Productivity Commission in April and released under the OIA. It found that the five-day extension of level 4 lockdown in April cost $741m more than the value of the benefit it produced.