A hotel staff worker sanitises the outside of Stamford Plaza on July 10, 2020 in Auckland. (Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

National and Labour agree. What a pity that the policy they agree on is shameful

Both major parties now want people returning to the country to pay for mandatory managed isolation. Our fellow New Zealanders don’t deserve such cruelty, argues Alex Braae.

Sarah has been trying to get home to New Zealand for months now. The eastern European country she is in locked their borders before MFAT started sending out the message to come home immediately. There is little sign of her situation changing any time soon. 

There has been no way to fly directly from the country she’s in back to New Zealand, or even transit to another country that would make it possible. Mercy repatriation flights haven’t come near her. She’s spent about $10,000 on flights that have subsequently been cancelled and new travel insurance. Refunds are taking months to be processed. 

Her visa has expired, so she’s unwilling to use her real name or share specifics about her location. She feels fortunate to have kept her job over the period the pandemic has been raging. But right now she’s relying on that government’s good grace to ensure that she won’t be left stranded, because her visa cannot be renewed. 

And now, thanks to a bipartisan commitment by both major parties, she might also have to pay thousands of dollars more for managed isolation that she will be forced by the government to be in, depending on when she can actually get home. 

“Not everyone is as fortunate as me,” says Sarah. “There’s people who have been doing work on farms and in bars and so on, and they don’t have the financial cushion I’ve been fortunate to have.

“And there’s a sense of frustration that we’re not really being acknowledged, because the calls to come home came after the border was already shut, so I couldn’t come home anyway. Lots of other people have done quarantine and haven’t had to pay. So it’s frustrating that now you might have to start paying.” 

She’s planning on continuing to try and get home, and there could still be a few months before charges are introduced. The issue has come into sharp focus after the National Party announced a policy on Sunday to charge returnees $3000 from early October, and senior minister Megan Woods swiftly chimed in to agree. 

Minister Megan Woods and Air Commodore Digby Webb heading to a press conference (Radio NZ, Dom Thomas)

“We believe people returning to New Zealand should assist with the considerable expense of accommodating them in managed isolation facilities,” said Woods. That was the line, rather than stressing, say, that it is in the interests of every single New Zealander to make sure managed isolation is as welcoming to returnees as possible. This border measure is by far the most important line of defence against Covid-19, and anything that might incentivise people to slip through the gaps should be avoided. Sure, $81 million might have been spent by the government on managed isolation to date – but that’s a lot cheaper than the cost of a Covid-19 outbreak. 

The line from National’s deputy leader was similarly risible. “National’s policy is about fairness. Many Kiwis have only one or two overseas holidays in their lives. National won’t expect taxpayers to pay for other Kiwis returning from high-paying careers or expensive holidays in Europe,” Gerry Brownlee said.

“Those who need to return to New Zealand have had plenty of time to get home since border restrictions began, including through repatriation flights organised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They will have a further two weeks to get home without facing the charge, after the election of a National government.”

If Brownlee really was just talking about people taking fancy holidays or those with glittering careers, he might have a point. But that is overwhelmingly not who the New Zealanders overseas are right now, and to cast them as such when only a few might be in that position is to damn them all. Many of those who go overseas aren’t wealthy at all – they go overseas to get better jobs than they could have here, or a job at all.

Gerry Brownlee. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

There was an example of a similar situation on Morning Report today. Mitch Nganeko, a teacher in London, told the show that his visa will expire in November, and that he’ll need to come back then. He simply doesn’t have the money to pay extra for managed isolation, unless he’s allowed to crack open his Kiwisaver. Otherwise he’ll have to “drain my bank account”, after a working life that involved a decade of paying taxes in New Zealand. 

And as Sarah’s situation shows, there are people in positions where they simply have not been able to get back. In case Brownlee had forgotten because life in New Zealand has returned to close to normal, the rest of the world is still in the grip of a global pandemic. Many New Zealanders are in truly messy and difficult situations. 

As Sarah put it, “people like me have slipped through the cracks in some ways. We’ve been really unsure what to do.” She says New Zealanders in her position have barely been acknowledged, save for a single line a recent email from SafeTravel.

“I just want people to know that there are a lot of different situations. It’s not a case where people can just say – ‘oh, New Zealand seems like a really cool place to be right now, so just for fun I’m going to go home.’ It’s really not that. We’re in tough situations, and having people have this opinion that it’s some kind of self-serving thing is super frustrating.”  

Underlying the policy shift of both major parties is the sense that the right of New Zealanders overseas to come back to their home are slipping away. It was already under threat when the government announced a fortnight ago that new flight bookings wouldn’t be possible, to manage the flow of people through managed isolation. Ardern defended that on the grounds that the government wasn’t stopping people from coming back – they just said that they might not be able to come back immediately. 

However, user pays is a completely different story, because for some people it will leave them completely unable to return. At a time when the global economy is going into a harsh downturn, how many people simply won’t be able to work enough to get the money they need to pay the additional fees? 

Woods said the issue would be discussed at cabinet today, with a particular focus on whether there should be exemptions and carve-outs to make it a bit more possible. “Any regime that is put in place that would have to have ways in which people that didn’t have the money to enter could. There could be some deferred payment schemes, or some ability to write off the particular circumstances,” she said – suggesting that people who might not be able to pay now might somehow have the ability to pay later, which seems like magical thinking. 

The two weeks in managed isolation isn’t a luxury – it’s a sacrifice for our collective good. Because we demand returnees go through managed isolation, it should be free to all, except in those extremely rare circumstances where someone has made a choice to take a discretionary holiday or business trip overseas. New Zealanders overseas are being treated as potential burdens on the taxpayer, when they are our brothers and sisters who should be welcomed home with open arms. 



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