Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will reveal New Zealand’s revision of its border shutdown policies on Thursday, Aug. 12. The island had been COVID-19 free since February.

According to Reuters, the new switch was urged by a severe workforce shortage in businesses and public sectors in the country, which resulted in inflation. 

New Zealand had been among the least affected by the CCP virus in the world. The country had employed an elimination approach to contain community spread, including strict lockdowns and an international border closure in March last year. 

The island has had one of the lowest COVID-19 rates globally, with roughly 2,500 infections and 26 deaths. Remarkably, the island reported the last local transmission six months ago. The impressive track record had helped Ardern win landslide reelection last October.

But the cost of such a strategy now comes clear: a direct strike to the immigrant workforce that the country depends critically on for high output and lower costs.

The acute shortage of available workers resulted in present employees having to undergo extra work, which some could not manage, especially when pay rises were not guaranteed. 

Reuters said thousands of workers in the healthcare sector had quit their jobs because they could not handle the workload. In addition, more than 30,000 nurses are scheduled to strike again this month as they seek improved wages and working conditions.

“We rely on internationally qualified nurses to meet our staffing needs but with the borders closed we are not getting any,” said New Zealand Nurses Organisation industrial services manager Glenda Alexander.

“Nurses are burning out, they are getting sick themselves and are constantly worried that they will make mistakes that could affect their patients.”

Additionally, the hospitality industry has been overburdened. Last month, nearly 2,000 restaurants stopped serving customers and shut off lights as part of a two-month campaign to raise attention to the serious shortages of cooks and other trained workers.

The affected industries span the dairy, horticulture, housing, services, health, and broader public sectors.

Reuters in May reported that besides the pandemic, the worker crisis was also partly caused by Ardern’s subtle efforts to hinder migration by tens of thousands each year and confine foreign homebuyers. As a result, businesses alleged that work visas were taking longer and were more difficult to get.

Meanwhile, Ardern stated that she would be careful with Thursday’s six-month plan for public health and border restrictions. However, the outlet revealed that the measures would seek consultancy from epidemiologists in a report called “Reconnecting New Zealanders to the World.”

“Any changes to border settings will be carefully considered in phases, based on risks,” she said on Monday, Aug. 9. “We have come too far and gained too many freedoms to rush at this next step and go backwards.”

Last week, New Zealand had granted one-way quarantine-free travel for seasonal migrants from Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu. The news media noted all three nations were prioritized for having zero active COVID-19 cases.

Businesses still hope that Arden would reconsider her restriction on foreign labor.

Costs are rising due to a low workforce, as firms pay more to keep employees. As a result, annual inflation hit a new high of 3.3 percent in the second quarter, far exceeding central bank expectations.

But in order to salvage its inflating economy, New Zealand might need highly rigorous scrutiny over the threat of the Delta variant, which had started to spread wild across many parts of the world, including its neighbor, Australia. 

And to Arden, if the variant reaches the island, lockdown would be imminent. 

“It (Delta) is much more dangerous than other strains of COVID,” Ardern said. “It changes our risk calculation in the same way that it’s changed everyone’s risk calculation.”

Otago University Professor Nick Wilson told NZHerald that one case of Delta variant detected in the island could qualify for an immediate lockdown.

“There would have be some very fast decision-making to consider a local lockdown, and that is the approach that we’ve seen working in Australia,” he said. “If it’s done fast and hard and quick, it may mean that a lockdown in a city or town can be restricted to just a matter of days.”

“With the very high infectiousness of this Delta variant, we may need to do even more,” Wilson suggested.

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