Bordering on policy

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 21 August 2020

The Prime Minister has declared this year’s election, now postponed until October, a “Covid election.”

That is an unfortunate framing. Though dealing with Covid is crucial for the country’s short- to mid-term future, there are plenty of other attention-deserving issues like education, housing and transport.

It is also somewhat ironic, then, that the most creative policy thinking on the Covid-19 issue comes from the opposition.

National’s border policy, launched this week, has the potential to push the debate forward. Though the plan is not without weaknesses, and though National at this stage looks unlikely to form the next Government, it injects creative policy ideas into New Zealand’s border debate.

As a starting point, National promises to establish a dedicated Border Protection Agency. This should be a no-brainer.

For months, it has been obvious the diversity of institutions in charge of the border are not up to the task. The Ministry of Health is a policy shop, not an operational agency. The Ministry of Housing is mainly involved because it has a decent Minister. The army has clear chains of command but no public system health expertise. The DHBs can operate a public health system but they are not sufficiently coordinated.

It makes sense to bring all border-related executive tasks together under one umbrella. It would also report to a single minister. That should stop the tiresome buck-passing we have seen in recent weeks.

Another point in National’s proposal is the extension of domestic testing. This includes boosting the tracing capacity by adding Bluetooth technology. Again, these measures are deployed in many East Asian countries as our researcher Leonard Hong has documented in his reports (and Leonard is duly credited in National’s policy document).

Perhaps National’s most controversial suggestion is to make it mandatory for all international travellers to get a Covid-19 test before boarding a plane to New Zealand.

Pre-departure tests have a couple of practical problems. It could be difficult to get the result quickly, and passengers may still contract the virus just after the test or while on the flight.

However, there is a partial solution for that. Instead of using the expensive, accurate but slow PCR tests, New Zealand could mandate simpler saliva tests at the airport. These tests cannot rule out that a passenger is infected, but they would flag if a passenger is infectious and therefore a risk to others on the flight.

It is good to see some policy thinking from the opposition. The Government should engage with these ideas and build on the proposals. It can only improve its border management.