By Peter Dunne*
New Zealand’s collective smugness at apparently beating Covid-19 earlier than most took quite a hit when new [imported] cases started to appear at the very time separate questions were arising about the efficacy of current border control and quarantine practices.
Some of the national sense of relief felt when the country moved to Alert Level 1 a couple of weeks ago dissipated suddenly, harming the restoration of confidence that was becoming a critical part of the economic and social recovery needed to restore a sense of the normality so many have been yearning for.
Now, there are fresh challenges to be met. Amongst the most dramatic of these is the likelihood of even stricter measures to control who is coming into the country. Rather than looking forward to a relaxation of border controls and the possible establishment of travel bubbles with other countries or regions, it now appears we are going to have to put up with a much longer period of international isolation than was previously considered reasonable or desirable.
And this brings us hard up against a hitherto unquestioned reality. New Zealand citizens and residents, wherever they may be in the world at present, have an inalienable right to return to the country they call home. Just as we accept the international obligation to support those who hold a New Zealand passport, whatever political or legal strife they may be in and wherever they are, so too do we have an obligation to ensure those citizens and residents who wish to return here are able to do so.
Now that we require all those coming to New Zealand, including citizens and permanent residents, to go through a period of managed isolation or quarantine before being released to their homes, families and friends, a serious issue has arisen regarding the costs of managed isolation and quarantine. As these escalate, and show no signs of reducing any time soon, it is being suggested that the price of managed isolation and quarantine should shift to a user pays basis. Cabinet is to consider the proposition within the next few weeks.
It is time to draw a line in the sand here. Any New Zealand citizen or permanent resident returning to this country and being required to enter a period of managed isolation or quarantine because of government policy on the management of Covid-19 should not be required to pay for the costs of that period of effective detention, under any circumstances. The commitment New Zealand makes to protecting those to whom it accords citizenship or permanent residence cannot be compromised in this way, and it is intolerable that the issue is even being considered. Making New Zealanders pay in such circumstances would be the start of a very slippery slope.
However, given the nature of the current national emergency it would not be unreasonable for the government and authorities to expect there to be full co-operation from all those returning, and for some sanctions to be applicable when that co-operation is not forthcoming. But that is quite different from charging citizens and residents directly for being quarantined upon arrival.
While the rights of citizens and residents are virtually inalienable in these circumstances, the same does not necessarily apply in the case of other people coming here, especially those whose visits are for private reasons, not directly related in some way to New Zealand’s national interests. In such circumstances, it may be quite appropriate to consider some form of payment to help defray the costs of their isolation or quarantine, although even then full cost-recovery is unlikely to be entirely appropriate.
But a measure of reciprocity would need to be considered. Many countries are presently facing similar questions. At the very least, it would be prudent for us to be keeping an eye on what they are contemplating and then making sure any actions we take on this score are at least consistent with those being taken elsewhere. The last thing we would want is for costs to be imposed on a retaliatory basis – if you impose these costs on our people entering New Zealand, then we will do likewise to your people entering our country. That would be a very silly and short-sighted approach on the part of both countries, and one we would be best to avoid.
As with so much of Covid-19 the question of what to do about the costs of managed isolation and quarantine sounds easy. The complexities become more apparent when it comes to actually doing something. It appears we fell into that trap originally regarding managing the border, and now we have to extricate ourselves from what has become a messy, inconsistent and generally unsatisfactory situation. We should learn from that when it comes to the questions of the costs of managed isolation and quarantine and avoid populist solutions likely to bite us very hard a little later on.
*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.