A British childcare manager has been blocked from entering New Zealand just before the opening of three childcare centres with 86 new staff who would have worked for her.
Angela Foley, an experienced early childhood centre manager, was recruited by Auckland-based New Shoots Children's Centres to run its five Bay of Plenty centres last year on a two-year work permit.
The company planned to transfer her to manage the launch of three new centres due to open shortly in Auckland and Kerikeri, but she had to return to Britain for family reasons in July and now can't get back into the country because the border is closed - even though she still has a work visa.
Company owner Michelle Pratt says she can't find anyone else in New Zealand with the right skills and experience, and it is "soul-destroying" that Immigration NZ has refused to make an exception for Foley.
"Without Angela it's going to be really, really difficult for us," she said.
"We are trying to entice someone who has left the early childhood sector to come back in till we get Angela for a temporary period. We'll be using all our network, but Angela is crucial to good outcomes for us."
The company applied to bring Foley in under a provision for "critical workers" who must either have "unique experience and technical or specialist skills that are not readily obtainable in New Zealand" or be required for infrastructure or other Government-approved projects.
The provision has been used to bring in Avatar film crew, but Immigration NZ responded last Friday that Foley's role did not meet the criteria.
"The New Zealand border remains closed for all unless an exception is made for critical travel and we are unable to make an exception in this case," it said.
New Zealand faced a national shortage of early childhood teachers before the Covid-19 pandemic, and the group was added to the immigration priority list in 2018.
However the shortage turned into a glut in many areas after Covid hit as parents are now working at home or have lost jobs and income.
Pratt has cancelled pre-Covid plans for new centres at Drury and in Hamilton, but is still opening her new 100-place centre at Kerikeri next week and new centres at Greenhithe and near the North Shore Events Centre in Auckland before Christmas because construction started before the pandemic.
More than 250 people attended a recent open day at the striking new Kerikeri centre and Pratt said there was still population growth there and near the two new Auckland centres.
"We have a reasonable number of new families returning, especially from Australia," she said.
She has recruited seven teachers to start at Kerikeri next week and will build up staffing there and at the two Auckland centres to a planned total of 86 as demand grows.
Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi announced this month "a new border exception category" for an expected 850 work visa holders who still have a job but have been out of the country temporarily.
But the new category, open for applications from early October, is only for workers who have been in NZ at least two years - which would rule out Foley.
Faafoi told the Herald that the two-year requirement "recognises that there are some temporary visa holders who have been in New Zealand for long periods of time and have built lives here".
"However, we need to balance the ability of these people to return to New Zealand alongside available managed isolation and quarantining facilities for NZ citizens and residents, and while also ensuring job opportunities are available for New Zealanders who have lost work due to Covid-19," he said.
New Shoots is seeking a review of the Foley decision.