Transport head sees worrying times to come… Let’s get real about Omicron

Opinion Nick Leggett, CEO, Ia Ara Aotearoa Transporting New Zealand

The year 2022 will be known for the RAT, or rapid antigen test.

It’s not the most elegant of product names, but for businesses the hunt is on for an ongoing and steady supply of RATs, to keep their staff healthy and at work and the steering wheel of the economy.

Given what we have seen happen overseas when the Omicron variant of Covid-19 has taken hold, we thought surely this time, as we face our third year of major disruption from the response to this virus, the government would be well prepared.

But no, it appears that New Zealand being the way we are, everyone had their ‘Two jabs for summer’ and took the time off.

In late January, when the government laid out its plan of “phases”, unfortunately it was not well articulated and it left businesses more concerned than ever. Those that had prepared and once RATs were allowed to be imported followed by testing regimes in place, suddenly found the government was requisitioning all the available rapid antigen testing coming into the country; leaving those businesses with no testing capacity.

Worryingly, the government’s new plan is predicated on who makes a critical worker list – being compiled by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). That list will determine who can be tested and therefore who can return to work perhaps earlier than the very long isolation periods imposed by the government require.

Like Australia it seems, we are not going to have enough supply of RATs because first they weren’t approved for use, then only a few brands were approved for use, then no one in government thought to buy them until the absolute last minute. In other countries you can buy them at the supermarket or from dispensing machines.

We have been down this road before over the past two years trying to explain to government officials how the supply chain works. Sadly, as we move into year three of the government responding to Covid, it’s a whole new bunch of contractors with a whole new lot of ideas about what’s important.

We know you can’t separate the supply chain into arbitrary essential and non-essential, as all parts of the chain are linked. Take one link out and the chain breaks.

We know that trucking businesses will keep on moving goods around New Zealand as best they can, no matter what happens. We won’t survive if they don’t as 93% of goods moved around New Zealand go on the back of a truck.

We predict New Zealand will go the way other countries have gone when Omicron hits 30-50% of the workforce and supermarket shelves lie bare. The government will have to reduce the ridiculous 24-plus days isolation periods – if people can’t leave their houses, they won’t be able to get food because very quickly, the home delivery systems will be overwhelmed. Also, it takes a special kind of sheltered person to think a big chunk of the workforce can go 24-plus days without working – not everyone can work from home.

Big businesses can afford to go to the non-government suppliers – the ones that aren’t being asked to hand over the RATs ordered by others – to set up their own testing regimes and the government likes the big end of town to be well cared for.

Of course, our industry is made up of a lot of small and medium sized businesses so we need to know how they can go on testing our workforce. We are working with the innovators trying to solve this problem to see if we can get industry-wide cover.

Transport operators have shown through the past two years that they can implement testing regimes, keep their staff safe with appropriate health measures, and keep working.

The next few months are going to be challenging as we iron out the details that allow the supply chain to work as it should, delivering for New Zealanders.

We have been helping businesses prepare and in January started a campaign to boost the truck driving ranks, should they be depleted by Omicron illness and the government’s long isolation and selective testing plans. We are calling on the many people out there with a class 2, 4, or 5 licence, who for whatever reason aren’t using it, to register their interest in being available to fill the gaps and keep the supply chain moving. We have had a really good initial response to this campaign.

We are committed to keeping our part of the supply chain moving, as we have done through the Covid pandemic even through lockdowns when truck drivers traversed lonely roads with little in the way of refreshment supplies and comfort stops.

The government’s plans unfortunately indicate no end to this – will we be in red and severely restricted for six months or another year? Will we ever go back to the orange light, or one day, green?

Too much power has been given to the Ministry of Health which has a singular focus – Covid. Unfortunately, as we go into year three, that’s not the only issue on the table and the government needs to broaden its focus, as almost every industry is urging them to do.

The elephant in the room when talking to any other government department about the government’s response is what will health do?

There is no doubt that Covid has been a world-changing event and debate on who managed it best will go on for years after the virus has done its worst. New Zealand has charted a path that has kept people safe from Covid, but it has come with many unintended consequences and long-lasting impacts.

Compliance has come from fear which has in turn, pitched citizens against each other, particularly New Zealanders who have had to travel, or live offshore, but have strong family connections here and wish to be able to return, as is the right conveyed on their passports.

But now we are vaccinated, masked, following all the health guidelines, prepared, willing and able, and we need to be allowed to get on with it. Government needs to step out of the way.