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BusinessOctober 22, 2021

Covid traffic light framework: NZ business and advocacy groups respond


Jacinda Ardern this morning outlined a new framework for NZ’s Covid response, conditional on vaccination levels (read our explainer here). How did that, and the associated business support and hardship assistance announcements, go down?

Judith Collins denounced this morning’s big announcements as a betrayal of business and an “utter disgrace”, but the consistent message among business lobby groups has been a cautious but clear welcoming of the new framework and the boosted support payments, which will see a doubling of resurgence support payment.

The framework, which kicks in for Auckland when its DHBs hit 90% double-vaccinated, and for the rest of the country when all DHBs reach the same level, provided “much needed clarity on moving beyond lockdowns and enabling the reopening of the economy”, said BusinessNZ chief executive Kirk Hope. It was “encouraging to see further support being offered to Auckland businesses currently struggling under level four restrictions”.

“They listened,” was the response from Michael Barnett, CEO of the Auckland Business Chamber. “We have a balanced response that considers health and wellbeing and getting back to business and more normal lives are now within our grasp as Auckland’s vaccination rates will hit the magic 90% within weeks.”

The support package was a boon to “desperate businesses”, he added, “by not only providing cash but recognising that help is needed through transition from restrictions to greater freedoms and will require employers to be in better shape financially, strategically and emotionally”.

There was a note of concern, however, from the EMA. The employers’ group again “welcomed” the framework and the support package, but chief executive Brett O’Riley was less confident that the 90% double-vax target would be easily achieved. “Getting to the 90% target in Auckland is going to be a challenge and while the $120m allocated to targeting our Māori community is great news, we’d like to know particularly how the government plans to reach other communities, such as those who are opposed to this vaccine but would have one of the others,” he said.

Hospitality NZ was especially impressed by the doubling of the resurgence payment, which was “desperately needed” by the sector. “We’re happy that the government has heard our demand that it will only happen once legal protections are in place for those who refuse entry to non-vaccinated people and introduce staff mandates,” said CEO Julie White. “This is better late than never. I sincerely hope it’s enough to stop more businesses going to the wall – but for some it won’t be enough.”

The financial support and confirmation that retail will be able to open at all stages of the traffic light framework were good news, said Retail NZ. It was disappointing, however, that “there is still no firm date when we will transition to the new system, which makes it difficult for businesses to plan and stay afloat”, said CEO Greg Harford. “We absolutely need to get people across the community vaccinated, and the government should set a date so that the unvaccinated appreciate the urgency.”

Another welcome came from Leeann Watson, CEO of the Canterbury Chamber of Commerce.

“It is positive to hear a plan for re-opening the economy and a pathway out of lockdown that instead focuses on vaccinations. This will provide businesses a degree of certainty and confidence to start planning ahead,” she said. “While there will be some frustration that we are to stay in alert level two until we reach the 90% double vaccination target, Cantabrians have done a great job over the last few weeks of getting our rates up, including the highest vaccination rates in the country on Super Saturday. However, this announcement reinforces the need for us to encourage those people who remain unvaccinated to get the vaccine, to protect our communities, workplaces, friends and whānau – and economy.”

She was pleased to hear, too, “that this framework will set up legal protections for businesses to refuse non-vaccinated people and employers for staff mandates, as this is an area that we receive numerous enquiries about from our members and wider business community. Businesses also need approaches and guidance to be able to take defendable decisions in preparing their workforces moving forward and we look forward to continuing to work with government to gain greater clarity on this.”

Another package announced today was a temporary lift in income limits for hardship support. For four months from November 1, hardship assistance from Work and Income will now be available to a single person working up to 40 hours at the minimum wage, or $800 per week and $1600 per week for a couple with or without children, up from the previous 30-hour limit.

That simply wasn’t good enough for the most vulnerable, said the Child Poverty Action Group, which called for an promised benefit increases to be brought forward.

“The government continues to say it is monitoring the situation, but 10 weeks into the lockdown we are still waiting for meaningful income-related support for children and their families,” said spokesperson Mike O’Brien. “Today’s announcement will make very little difference to families as they are one-off payments: families need adequate regular income they can rely on.”

He added: “Children living in families with inadequate resources – particularly disadvantaged tamariki Māori and Pacific children – are among those being made to bear the heaviest Covid-19-related burdens. Children are hurting now, and the longer their need is left, the worse the consequences will be for everyone.”

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