• Getting Our Priorities Right

    Much of the political debate over the past few months – as we have grappled with the coronavirus pandemic – has centred on the question of whether it is the interests of business or the health of the community that should take priority in policy terms.

    Much has been made of the damage done to business by the focus placed on controlling the virus through measures such as lockdowns of varying severity; but most people have understood that there is not a choice to be made between protecting business on the one hand and dealing with the virus on the other – that the best, indeed, only, way of helping business is to bring the virus under control.

    That conclusion is strongly supported by the unhappy experience of other countries – the US and the UK, among others – which have followed a different course and attempted to protect businesses rather than people. In our case, the issue seemed to have been put to rest by our election result, which could be seen as an endorsement of the government’s current priorities.

    It is therefore somewhat surprising that we now find ourselves threatened with further outbreaks of covid-19 brought about by the relaxed attitude apparently taken to the arrival on our shores of scores of foreign fisherman from countries – Russia and the Ukraine – known to be hotspots for the virus.

    These foreign fishermen, many of whom have been found to be infected and have had to be quarantined on arrival, despite allegedly having been quarantined and tested before they left their countries of origin, are permitted entry, it seems, in the interests of large fishing firms who say that the imported workers are “essential” because there is a shortage of Kiwis who are trained well enough to be capable of working on the technically advanced fishing vessels used by the fishing firms.

    Does being “essential” mean that their threat to our covid-free status can or should be disregarded or overlooked? How is it that the health and safety of the population as a whole (as well as the business interests of many other firms) are being put at risk in the interests of a couple of fishing firms who apparently have neither the foresight nor competence to train the staff they need? And when will they ever train virus-free Kiwis if they are permitted to go on importing trained, albeit infected, workers from overseas?

    What efforts have they made to train Kiwi workers? How did the foreign workers get trained in the first place? And do they offer other advantages – perhaps settling for lower wage rates – as well as their superior training?

    Surely our newly elected government must apply the lessons that they themselves have learned and proclaimed in their successful campaign against the virus? Surely they will give priority to the people who elected them, and will, above all else, take the steps required to prevent any further outbreaks?

    Have we not reached the point when businesses must be told that we – the population as a whole – having made so many sacrifices ourselves, are entitled to expect businesses to accept and act on their own responsibilities; at the very least, are we not entitled to be spared the threat of a resurgence of the virus, merely because a business has been run so incompetently that it cannot function without jeopardising the health of the rest of us?

    And what of other firms that have made so many sacrifices themselves? Are their interests to be put at risk, simply because another firm has lacked the foresight, over a period of twenty-five years, to train its own New Zealand-based crew?

    Come on, ministers and officials! Show some of the clarity and decisiveness that have distinguished your performance so far. The public good must surely be the top priority .

    Bryan Gould
    27 October 2020