As reports pile up on the success of vaccines against Covid 19, is it time for New Zealand to think of how it will return to normal?
The vaccines will not simply eradicate the virus, so governments will need to start thinking about how to live with it.
The London “ Economist” last week pointed up the problem for NZ, a country which it said had sought to be Covid-free by bolting its doors against the world.
“ In this way it has kept registered deaths to just 25, but such a draconian policy makes no sense as a permanent defence. NZ is not North Korea. As vulnerable Kiwis are vaccinated , their country will come under growing pressure to open its borders—and hence to start to tolerate endemic Covid-19 infections and deaths.”
The task for governments is to work out when and how to switch from emergency measures to policies that are economically and socially sustainable indefinitely. The Economist reckons the transition will be politically hard in places that have invested a lot in being covid-free.
So this is what is looming for the Ardern government: can the Prime Minister repeat the success she has achieved in coping with the outbreaks?
Already the pressures are building on her to reciprocate freer travel with Australia.
Vaccine passports and restriction in crowded spaces could become mandatory. And will mask-wearing on public transport become part of everyday life?
In an economic sense New Zealanders in general have not experienced the blows dealt by Covid-19 that countries like the United Kingdom have had to absorb.
But operators in international tourism, the hospitality industry and educational services have been affected with varying degrees of severity.
Jobs with Air New Zealand were among the most coveted in the country. And the question is being asked: how far should the government go in refinancing the national airline (in which the state has the largest stake)? There are those within the government who think Air NZ’s future is as a regional airline, leaving long-haul services to countries with deeper pockets.
That feeds on to another issue over how far NZ wants to go in encouraging international tourists to return to their shores. This is an issue which Simon Upton, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, spotlighted last week when he argued that the tourism industry has been cosseted for too long while its impact on the environment has been ignored.
“There is broad support for the idea that protecting tourism livelihoods in the short term should not morph into a slow but inexorable return to the status quo in the long term,” Upton says.
The commissioner presents a set of four policy proposals to combat some of the more pressing environmental challenges faced by tourism.
* Introduce a departure tax that reflects the environmental cost of flying internationally from New Zealand, and use the revenue to support the development of low-emissions aviation technologies and provide a source of climate finance for Pacific Island nations.
* Make any future central government funding for tourism infrastructure conditional on environmental criteria and aligned with mana whenua and the local community’s vision for tourism development.
* Clarify and, where necessary, strengthen the tools the Department of Conservation can use to address the loss of wildness and natural quiet at some of Aotearoa’s most spectacular natural attractions. This includes tightening rules around commercial activity on conservation lands and waters.
* Strengthen the existing standard for self-contained freedom camping, improve oversight of the certifying process and require rental car agencies to play a greater role in collecting freedom camping infringement fees and fines.
”These proposals are not 100 % of the solution, but together, they just might make a difference,” he explains.
So while Air NZ’s CEO Greg Foran is pressing the Finance Minister for money to keep his business in the air, Parliament’s environmental watchdog is telling the government to tax international tourists as hard as it can.
Before Covid-19 struck, international tourism headed NZ’s export earnings, with the number of international tourists topping 3.9 million a year. This points up the dimensions of the value to the country of the industry.
We can look at it another way: it is just one of the many challenges confronting Ardern and her Cabinet as NZ gets closer to opening up its borders. Or is that Ardern and her team of 5 million?