Steven Joyce: It’s time we climbed out of the Covid bunker

OPINION:

It’s become increasingly clear in recent weeks that the Government needs a new Covid response playbook.

It has done many good things since the epidemic began in earnest just over a year ago, but there are growing signs that it is developing a bunker mentality where the same old answers are brought out for each problem while the rest of the world looks more resolutely ahead.

When one year on, the only response to a hint of Covid-19 infection in the community is to put our largest city back into lockdown not once, but twice in three weeks, you know our thinking has not developed much.

When the rest of the country has to go into level 2when it hasn’t had a single case in goodness knows how long, and events and gatherings the length and breadth of the country are disrupted, that’s another sign our thinking has not evolved.

If anything, our approach seems to be becoming more conservative and harder to explain. The initial lockdown was to break the chain of community transmission and prevent our hospitals being overrun. The last two were out of “an abundance of caution”.

Why the Government announced Auckland’s latest lockdown at a hurried press conference at 9pm on a Saturday night when genomic test results for the case in question would answer one of their two concerns the very next morning needs answering. Why couldn’t they have waited 12 hours? It’s not as if they would have stopped people who were already heading out that evening.

Anyway, would it nothave been better to set up localised restriction in Papatoetoe and surrounding suburbs along with more active on-the-ground contact tracing until more information was known?

Public support for wider lockdowns is obviously fraying as a result of these regular restrictions on daily lives. People no doubt remember back at the start of this thing when we were told a long lockdown would prevent us having to yo-yo in and out of more of them.

However it’s not just the lockdown approach that’s in need of new thinking and new ideas.

The Government has inexplicably set its mind against further financial help to the gravely damaged tourism, events, and education industries. They have sent Stuart Nash out to rub salt in wounds and tell tourism people and towns who have lost nearly all, to “have a conversation with their bank”.

Ministers are probably gun-shy after the Auditor-General announced his investigation into the way big dollops of cash were handed to selected large tourism businesses last year, but there is a far better model for support sitting in front of their noses: the wage subsidy scheme. And there is also the means. The government books, while damaged by Covid, are better than expected.

I’m not an advocate for spraying money around but there is surely a moral obligation to keep supporting those sectors and towns that are prevented from making a living in the meantime so the rest of us can be safer.

There is also an economic case. A debate has started about whether international tourism will come back strongly in the “new normal”. So far that debate has been more about feels than facts, but if we are not careful, it could simply be an academic one. Thousands of businesses that used to support one of our largest industries are on the verge of being stripped out and starved.

The wider recovery from Covid could also do with some new thinking. At least we all think it could, because despite lots of talk nobody has yet seen the Government’s recovery strategy. That such a void exists one year on is highly surprising.

In an unusual move this week, five of our most senior and respected public company directors called publicly for “more openness and clarity from the Government on its plan for getting New Zealand to “Covid normal”. They requested “New Zealand’s near to long-term Covid-19 strategy to be made available beyond government circles.”

These are professional, largely apolitical, business leaders and their willingness to comment publicly can be taken as indicative of a wider frustration.

Meanwhile at the University of Waikato’s economic forum, the to-do list was piling up.

Concerns and ideas were constructively aired from both the left and the right about the direction of the Climate Commission, the financial stability risks of high asset prices, inflation, and the state of our education system.

No less a personage than Allan Bollard, the Government’s new infrastructure czar, was politely laying out his concerns that the new RMA reforms may make it more difficult to build things in this country, not less.

All these things need debating, and solutions developed. And yet, almost universally when people try to engage with ministers or senior officials, the response is a variation on “we’ve got that”, “we’ve thought of that”, or “we won’t be doing that”. People offering ideas about how to better manage the border have been particularly ignored.

The Government looked grumpy and defensive for much of this week and they need to break out of it.

They seem to see the ideas of others as implied criticism and be stuck in the mindset that changing their approach is a sign of weakness. It is none of those things.

I know from experience that there is nothing so liberating as opening up the doors and inviting people in to share the challenge and provide new ideas.

Our country has many risks still ahead and some great opportunities. There are some very bright, talented people in this country with the smarts to ensure our recovery from Covid takes advantage of our achievements to date, and they all have New Zealand’s best interests at heart.

The Government should actively recruit them to the cause.

– Steven Joyce is a former National MP and Minister of Finance.

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