It isn't just Covid-19 that's at the heart of New Zealand's current labour shortage, it's our solution to keeping the virus out of the country: border traffic that is choked to a minimum by Managed Isolation and Quarantine.
No work visa holder can enter the country without a special exemption to allow them a coveted spot in MIQ. And the Government has rationed such spots down to just a few hundred a month, insisting that most of the scarce capacity is needed for returning residents and citizens.
Where ordinarily we would have hundreds of thousands of migrant workers streaming into the country to fill jobs annually, that flow is now reduced to a trickle.
Meanwhile, New Zealand is suffering a sharp labour shortage that almost undoubtedly runs to tens of thousands of unfilled jobs, with deep pockets of need ranging from high skilled areas like technology to relatively low skilled industries like horticulture and hospitality.
But there's no reason MIQ room capacity should sit at its current 4000 rooms a fortnight (a large contingency is kept spare). And there is no magic reason why every arrival should move through MIQ either.
While Government ministers are loath to vary the rules for any workers entering the country, they have done it in the past.
Treasury documents show that in August of last year then Health Minister Chris Hipkins planned to require MIQ stays for all "returning New Zealand-based aircrew" a measure that would have affected Air New Zealand's international crews primarily.
The plan was onerous. Air New Zealand CEO, Greg Foran, wrote a letter warning ministers that, if the change went ahead, the company would be forced to cut freight and passenger capacity in half.
The Treasury also mounted a strong case against the bolstered health measures. We'd hardly be any safer, its argument went in a September report to the Minister of Finance, but we'd likely be a lot poorer.
As New Zealand headed into peak export season the loss of half of Air New Zealand's cargo capacity would have been devastating, particularly to the primary sector.
In the end, New Zealand-based aircrews were spared MIQ (they are subject to a host of other risk-mitigating measures including personal protective equipment and testing) while aircrews on layovers from overseas were not.
It's now past time for considering other, similarly pragmatic, ways to better move workers through or around MIQ provisions. And the target of achieving a large economic gain at minimal risk of allowing the virus into the general community is a good place to start.
Workers who come from countries with a very low risk of Covid-19, like most of the Pacific Islands, are in many ways like Air New Zealand pilots. There is very little to be gained from funnelling them through MIQ facilities, and, given the potential that they come into contact with more high-risk travellers, something to be lost.
There are also a variety of worker-starved industries with considerable interest in running facilities that would expand and supplement the government's MIQ capacity and also achieve isolation for such workers. It makes sense to start where those workers pose a tiny risk in the first place.
Take horticulture, for example. Last year, industry group Apples and Pears put a proposal to the Government to turn a Hawke's Bay facility known as the Angus Inn into an isolation facility for horticultural workers (up to 350 people a fortnight, if 14 day isolation was required). The local DHB reviewed the plan as credible, but the Government turned it down.
The apple industry subsequently lost an estimated $95-$100m in exports through unpicked fruit last harvest season and it fears a repeat in 2022.
Ministers also spiked a variety of other proposals to divert travellers and workers away from capacity-constrained MIQ facilities, including a proposal for a 'sport Managed Isolation and Quarantine Facility' in the South Island, put forward by New Zealand Rugby, Netball New Zealand and New Zealand Cricket. Similarly, universities had plans of their own to isolate international students. Those too were nixed.
And that was in 2020. Since then a mismatch between New Zealand job creation and the willing, able and available labour force has only deepened.
MIQ, however, is little changed. Where is the evolving thinking about low-risk arrivals? Either those who've been fully vaccinated or those arriving from very low-risk countries?
While quarantine-free travel with Australia is a considerable and welcome step forward, it is also a double-edged sword. Even as it alleviates demand on MIQ facilities, it increases the likelihood that a rising number of Kiwis will move offshore for jobs.
The urgency for change would be diminished if it appeared that mass vaccination would deliver us any time soon from the 'keep it out' border policy. But that's unlikely. Even as the Government talks up an end-of-year deadline for full vaccination it's quietly funded MIQ facilities through to June 30, 2022.
The cost is nominally another $1.2b for the next 12-months, much more if you add expenses like Defence Force staff and police. But the real cost is higher still and it will be paid in lost industry and growth.
OUT OF WORKERS: A Business Herald Series
• The tech sector's new pain point
• Economic fallout and the human toll
• Solutions: What should the Govt be doing, how firms are adapting