Border lessons from Covid

18 Jun 2020 Border lessons from Covid image

There is much we can learn from Covid, including international and New Zealand made lessons. The most critical is that the border is not secure. In the primary sector, we are only too aware that the border leaks. Biosecurity is one of our biggest concerns. Pests, diseases and pathogens can race across our border at an alarming rate despite the best efforts of the Government and our very dedicated border biosecurity teams.

The truth of it all is that the only way to have a 100% pest proof guarantee is to close the border completely. And that is not practical. People need to move from country to country. We need to trade our goods internationally to keep New Zealand financially sustainable.

Some of the worst effects of the tight restrictions at the border (though not as tight as it should have been) have been felt by tourism, international education and the movement of seasonal workers. All are vitally important for our economy to thrive. All of them are unlikely, in the near future, to be in business. In horticulture, our hope for both New Zealand and the Pacific is that we will be able to create a travel bubble with the Pacific. A travel bubble will allow tourism to the Pacific and the movement of seasonal workers to New Zealand. It will generate vital income for both nations.

Today we are repatriating the workers who came over for harvest. This effort is being made with amazing support from the New Zealand Government with Air Force flights to Vanuatu. We are planning and hoping for our Pacific bubble to free up the movement between New Zealand and the Pacific as we go forward into next season’s harvest.

When something nasty gets past the border, what we’ve learned in horticulture, is that you’ve got to double down all efforts. The border is in reality only the first line of defence. The second and most important line of defence is how we respond to the incursion of the pest, disease, pathogen. Responses take a lot of effort and involve everyone who lives where the incursion has happened. They also cost millions and millions of dollars. Fruit fly is an example of a pest that we were fortunate to eradicate on several occasions, through good planning and well-executed response programmes.

There are, however, some pests that cannot be eradicated. When pests do become established, we have to change the way we grow forever - and that costs millions of dollars too. Psa nearly destroyed the kiwifruit industry last decade and is a prime example of that. It was never eradicated, and to this day, growers need to manage their orchards to keep it under control.

Covid is very much the human equivalent of Psa – except one is a virus, and the other a bacteria. It is everywhere in the world, and the only way to eradicate it is to let it burn out and then to keep the country or orchard in lockdown.

The one thing that a crisis does, however, is bring out the best in all of us. The New Zealand Government coming to the aid of the Pacific workers and helping them get home is just one example, but one horticulture is very grateful for. Just as we in horticulture care for plants, we as a country care for New Zealand and our citizens.

We must prepare and continually enhance our plans on how to deal with cases of Covid that escape the border just as we plan to deal with biosecurity incursions, and practice how to respond. We are always looking for new ways in which to contain and eradicate a pest or disease. That is what we need to do for Covid.

The health of New Zealand and our financial sustainability depends on both people and plants. We need to protect them at the border from incursions of pest and diseases and, most importantly, have thorough response plans to manage incursions when something slips through the border.

Mike Chapman, Chief Executive

Click here to read Minister Winston Peters' media release on the repatriation of Recognised Seasonal Employment (RSE) workers.