OPINION | Clarity Means Timings, Not Targets    

 by Kirk Hope, Chief Executive, BusinessNZ

Frankly, the business sentiment in Auckland right now is pretty bleak.

For small businesses up here currently dealing with very low or no income, the outgoing expenses will be piling up under lockdown conditions. Government support in acknowledgement of ongoing hardship, doubling of the resurgence support payment, is welcome. Still, many business owners will be looking for a sensible timeframe for when they will be coming out of lockdown. Businesses pained by extended restrictions due to COVID-19 deserve - at the very least - clarity around what our next steps are to reopen. With vaccination rates climbing across the region and the country, business owners must be told what’s next and when.

We understand Auckland will reopen and join the rest of the country under a ‘traffic light’ system once the region’s DHBs reach a 90 percent double-vaccination target. That’s a disheartening figure for many businesses across Auckland as it sets a high bar for reopening and one that is largely out of their control.

The Government has begun to provide a framework of what New Zealand will look like now that we’ve accepted COVID-19 is here to stay. Businesses are keen to understand how they fit in. Right now, business owners are seeking to protect their customers, staff and visitors. They are struggling to understand what they can and can’t do at present. That leaves them open to potential legal challenges to business decisions and breeds further uncertainty.

The proposed legislation will require vaccination of all workers at businesses where customers need to show a COVID-19 vaccination certificate. It will introduce a simpler risk assessment process for other businesses when deciding whether workplace vaccinations should be mandated. The BusinessNZ Network worked closely with Government and NZCTU on planned legislation for vaccine certificates and mandates. However, by setting the ambiguous date of their arrival as ‘sometime in November’, the Government leaves businesses in the dark.

To operate with any certainty, we need two things from the Government. An announcement on when businesses can expect these mandated vaccine certificates and what ‘plan B’ looks like if we do not reach 90 percent vaccination soon.

Until now, businesses have found it difficult to determine what they can rightfully enforce. The Government’s mandate covers up to 40 percent of businesses – including places like gyms and hairdressers. But more clarity is required on who is and isn’t covered. Some businesses that fall outside of this mandate may wish to comply and want to feel confident in requiring vaccinations from staff and customers. The announcement so far lacks that clarity.

Currently, border, education and health workers are mandated to be vaccinated under a Public Health Order. To simplify things, BusinessNZ has proposed that the scope be expanded to include essential workers and those working in critical infrastructures like telco, power, and logistics.

Businesses who are not covered by the Government’s mandate can undertake a risk assessment process to determine if their business was a high, medium or low—risk business. A simplified risk assessment process is also in the works to make this process easier. Assuming that the business is a high or medium-risk business according to the criteria, mandating vaccinations for staff and customers would be an option available without fear of reprisal.

BusinessNZ research shows that businesses want their people to be safe – that means providing a safe workplace and the ability to mandate vaccinations within the environment they operate. Creating a safe environment for staff and consumers is the number-one way business owners can prevent the spread of COVID.

This vaccination mandate for staff is less about ‘tightening the screws’ for unvaccinated workers but rather an opportunity to prioritise their wellbeing. The four-week notice period served to anyone who has not yet been jabbed could be the wake-up call that motivates people who until now have viewed it as a low priority.

As I say, things seem pretty bleak right now. I sympathise with business owners, particularly small business owners in Auckland, who are doing anything and everything to keep the lights on. The Government needs to set clear dates around what’s coming – and anything less than crystal clarity just won’t cut it.