Wellington, August 1, 2020
Overseas Kiwis affected by the new managed isolation fees say that the Policy does not stand up to the usual tests of efficiency or fairness.
When Minister in charge of Managed Isolation and Quarantine Dr Megan Woods announced a new, user-pays managed isolation system, expat Facebook groups quickly became crammed with impassioned comments.
Over the past few weeks, these groups have been dedicated to mounting a coordinated, sustained and well-reasoned opposition to a fee for Kiwis coming into the country.
There have been surveys, petitions and legal advice, as well as the exploration of potential human rights breaches and breaches of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, should a charge be introduced.
The pages have been filled with tear-inducing stories about those who would be cut off from spouses, children and parents.
At first glance, the Government has done exactly what many overseas Kiwis feared: there will soon be a $3100 fee for the first person’s two-week stay in managed isolation, with a $950 charge for each additional adult, and $475 for each additional child.
The Policy in practice
But a second look shows that is not really how the policy would work in practice.
Anyone moving home permanently would be exempt. Those unable to pay will be exempt. People with sick or dying relatives: exempt. Other extenuating circumstances: probably exempt.
It is those occupying the “squeezed middle” who look most likely to be affected. A small number who are not in financial hardship, but generally live pay-check to pay-check, and would struggle to travel with this added cost.
Given that there is such a long list of exemptions: why bother at all?
The fees are expected to apply to just 10% of those using managed isolation and the amount that the government expects to recover in costs is between $2 million and $9 million.
It will cost $600,000 to administer.
It is about fairness
When asked if the law was supposed to be a deterrent, rather than a revenue gatherer, Dr Woods said, “No, it is about fairness.”
Sense Partners Economist Shamubeel Eaqub said that every policy needs to meet an efficiency and fairness test.
“I suspect that efficiency is limited in this case, given regulatory burden and very low revenue likely to be generated,” he said.
But not all the costs and benefits are financial, and the trade-off between fairness and efficiency are not equal. Some of it is about signalling that the government is using the country’s collective resources wisely and thwarting free-loaders.
Mr Eaqub said that from a purely economic perspective, this Policy will not be worth the bother.
“But from a political economy perspective, it is,” he said.
Dr Woods said that all Kiwis would agree a fee is fair “in the right balance.”
But with September 19 (general election) looming, this decision seems to be more about being seen to be fair, rather than actually enacting a fair scheme.
Infometrics senior economist Brad Olsen agrees this needs to be seen in the context of the upcoming election.
The government needs to have regard for financial prudence in the face of higher debt stemming from the pandemic, and it does not want to be seen as providing everything for free.
There are no good options here, Mr Olsen said.
But while the small amount of revenue generated hardly seems worth the while, it is important to remember the country does not have a money tree funding various Covid-related costs.
Everyone benefits from isolation, he said.
“If everyone benefits, it seems appropriate that everyone (taxpayers and those returning) both shoulder the cost,” Mr Olsen said.
Debate and disagreement
But those who have been excluded from the ‘Team of Five Million’ say that this Policy does not seem fair.
While the debate began under the guise of cost burdens and the prudent use of taxpayer funds, it is become about values and a disagreement over what constitutes fairness.
It is sad to hear those who are usually cheerleading for New Zealand (often ad nauseum) saying they have lost their pride in their country over the way the debate has played out.
There has been a string of comments from Kiwis saying people who abandoned their country not only did not deserve government-funded managed isolation, or call themselves citizens, but did not deserve to live.
One expat said that they have never been more disappointed in New Zealand, another said they were embarrassed to be a Kiwi.
“It’s a shame that the team of five million apparently do not care about anyone but themselves. I was so proud of you all before. Proud to be a Kiwi watching you come together to protect our country and our people. Now all you have done is show that Kiwis are not so kind after all,” one said.
Throughout the pandemic, New Zealand spoke about working as a team; about coming together (apart).
Now, overseas Kiwis have detailed how this fee will keep them from their spouses, their children, and their parents, at a time when they felt they needed to be together.
For someone like Yvette Webster, it is hard to sell this fee policy compromise as fair.
Webster lives in Scotland with her husband, and has lost 80% of her income due to Covid.
Earlier this year, her father was diagnosed with Stage 3 Cancer. He was too sick to attend Webster’s wedding in Scotland, and will undergo surgery later this year, after four rounds of intense chemotherapy.
She was planning to travel home in December after being away for four years.
Her husband has never met his father-in-law.
“Paying for quarantine will cripple us financially and we would have to borrow money to be able to pay for it,” she said.
The real costs
Flights, managed isolation charges, and the time off work would put the trip at a cost of $14,000. She has no idea if she would be exempt from the fee.
Ms Webster said that it is unfair that expats – and New Zealand-based Kiwis needing to travel overseas to visit family – should be lumped with costs when quarantine benefits everyone.
“A majority of Kiwis are returning home for genuine reasons. I do not think that many Kiwis are just planning a holiday – we have a variety of reasons for coming home and the majority of us just want to see our loved ones. The law change is creating a second class of citizens who are deemed as ‘tourists’ in their own country,” she said.
Like others, Ms Webster is eagerly awaiting further details on how the system will work.
Team of Six Million
Max Harris, one of the coordinators of advocacy group The Team of Six Million – Kiwis United Against Quarantine Fees said that the decision not to charge those returning permanently was good news for thousands of New Zealanders.
For those affected by the scheme, the announcement was a “major disappointment, which could cause “significant hardship.”
“We should not be disconnecting people from support during this global pandemic.”
Mr Harris said that his advocacy group, which has about 3500 members, is calling on the government to leave the introduction of regulations until after the election, when it has a mandate for the changes.
Laura Walters is Senior Political Reporter at Newsroom in Wellington, covering Justice, Education and the upcoming campaign. The above Report has been published under a Special Arrangement with Newsroom.