(Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

New frontiers: border control becomes election battleground

The Covid-19 resurgence has pushed border policy to the heart of the election campaign. Justin Giovannetti writes from parliament on the rival visions.

In an uncertain future with Covid-19 still present and the next pandemic lurking around the corner, a new border agency, more testing and faster contact tracing will keep the country safe, insists the leader of the National Party, Judith Collins.

The official opposition released a campaign promise yesterday to “inject some steel” into the country’s coronavirus response. Part of the plan could leave some New Zealanders who are currently overseas with no way of getting home.

While New Zealand First has suggested turning over much of the border system to the military and Act has called for a privatisation a large part of the country’s isolation facilities, National has walked back many of its more sweeping reform ideas from recent months. Instead, the opposition’s plan builds on the border system created by the Labour-led government and veers away from ideas that would allow businesses or universities to open private isolation facilities.

New Zealand’s Covid-19 response would extend around the world under Collins’ plan as returnees would be ordered to present a negative coronavirus test before getting on a plane. The test would need to be less than three days old.

If New Zealanders can’t receive the tests overseas in a timely fashion or if they test positive for Covid-19, the country will be closed to them. “They can’t come back at this stage,” said Collins, speaking with reporters at the National Party headquarters near parliament. “This is tough, but tough times need tough measures”.

Collins acknowledged some people not presenting symptoms might not be able to get a test. However, she said that would be a small individual sacrifice for the country that would be under a zero-tolerance policy for Covid-19. “We have to look at the shocking burden that 1.6 million New Zealanders in Auckland are currently undergoing,” she said.

Health minister Chris Hipkins said the government has not considered the overseas tests because it can’t be assured that New Zealanders will be able to get timely tests in foreign countries. Some could also be very expensive, he warned.

Under National’s plan the overseas test would not replace the tests that currently take place on the third and 12th day of isolation once in New Zealand.

The party has also called for most New Zealanders to pay a $3,000 fee for managed-isolation on their return. The current fee is limited only to people who intend to spend fewer than 90 days in New Zealand.

The centrepiece of Collins’ plan is a new crown agency, the NZ border protection agency, which would be put in charge of managing Covid-19 at the country’s points of entry. According to National’s leader, many of the government’s failures to test returnees and staff at the border have been a result of the multifarious government departments managing the response. The single agency would cut across ministries and would be empowered to make mandatory orders to deal with Covid-19 or future pandemics.

Making a comparison to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the US, Collins said the new agency was necessary because “the world is not the same”.

The agency would be called Te Korowai Whakamaru in Māori. Collins said it would act like the nation’s korowai, describing it as a cloak of protection.

Hipkins, speaking for the government, said a new level of bureaucracy isn’t needed at this time. He called the necessary reorganisation of a number of government agencies “a big destructing exercise in the middle of the task” that would distract from the Covid response.

According to Collins, the new agency would oversee a border system with more technology built into it. Border workers, as well as health staff who treat patients infected with the virus, would be required to use some form of contact tracing technology.

Returnees would also be required to use a new Bluetooth-based app on their phones. The current Covid-19 tracer app would be dumped as Collins has dismissed it as a failure after only one-third of the population has downloaded it.

The National leader said the current app failed because people were too confident the border was working. She said her border system would work better and people would still use the app because she’d tell them it’s essential to keeping the country safe. Asked how this would differ from the current situation, where prime minister Jacinda Ardern has asked people to download the app for months, Collins said her charms would work where Ardern’s failed.

More money would be allocated to a CovidCard, a type of contact tracing technology that someone can wear and logs their contacts with other people wearing a similar technology. The government has undertaken several trials of the technology and is currently rolling it out to more people.

The rest of National’s plan was a wish list of things they’d investigate if they were elected. A National government would be “striving towards” reducing wait times for Covid tests to an hour, along with making more testing available. There’d be regular testing of workers in aged-care facilities. A National government would also work on more planning to control future outbreaks. There’s little on that wish list that the current government wouldn’t support.

Megan Woods, the minister in charge of the border facilities, sought to steal some of the opposition’s limelight by announcing a series of extra security measures at isolation minutes before Collins took the stage.

There will now be CovidCard use by staff within the facilities, thermal cameras will be installed aroudn the perimeter of the hotels, and more cameras and security systems will be used. “While no system is fool proof these additional security arrangements add an extra layer of protection to help keep Covid at the border,” said Woods in a statement.

NZ First put forward a border plan yesterday that it will campaign on that shares some similarities, notably the creation of a border protection force. The single agency would avoid the need for multiple ministers and civil servants to speak with the public, according to Winston Peters.

“Pandemics move swiftly. They offer no room for error, and a government must be at its very best to beat a pandemic. This nation has responded well in the past, but we must examine every option and take every step to respond better in the future,” said Peters.

NZ First has said that only military-run discipline and precision can make the quarantine and isolation system safe. He said that instead of holding people, largely in central Auckland, returnees should be sent to isolated army camps.

Peters called for the construction of new housing and infrastructure at the army camp in Waiouru, Ohakea or outside Christchurch. According to NZ First, the set-up would be cheaper than paying for isolation in private hotels.

Act leader David Seymour added his two cents yesterday when he called for the government to create an epidemic response centre, his answer to the border agency. He also said privately run isolation should be the norm and the country should allow incoming travellers based on the level of Covid-19 risk in their countries, rather than shutting the door to the world.




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