new zealands businesses want strict border curbs lifted - New Zealand's businesses want strict border curbs lifted

WELLINGTON (REUTERS) – New Zealand’s tight Covid-19 bubble was once globally lauded but for local business, the strict border controls increasingly feel like a straitjacket as a lack on foreign workers and tourists squeezes the island nation’s economy.

Meat processors have cut production, grapes are withering on vines and a dearth of international visitors has some tourism operators worried they will have to close shop by the time borders reopen later this year.

New Zealand’s swift response to the pandemic, including the strict border controls, kept the country largely Covid-19 free until the end of last year, winning Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government strong praise at home and abroad.

But public anger over sustained domestic restrictions has since grown, reaching a climax last month during violent protests outside the nation’s legislature in Wellington.

A closely watched poll on Thursday (March 10) showed support for Ms Ardern’s Labour Party at its lowest since 2017.

That frustration has also broadened to the business community, who want the government to expedite its borders reopening.

“The government has done an exceptional job of getting us to where we are but people are tired and just want to get on with it,” said Ms Jude Cathcart, who runs a bike tour company, The Jollie Biker, in New Zealand’s South Island.

Prior to the border closures, around 40 per cent of Ms Cathcart’s customers were from Australia and she is keen to have them back.

Under a plan announced before the Omicron variant became widespread, a staggered easing of border controls would only see New Zealand fully open to vaccinated travellers in October.

But with Omicron now rampant in the community, business and agriculture see little value in staying shut off from the rest of the world and have increased calls to speed up the reopening.

“The situation is getting dire (for the tourist sector),”said Ms Lynda Keene, chief executive of the Tourism Export Council of New Zealand, saying while restrictions were once right, the world had moved on.

New Zealand now averages 20,000 cases a day, out of a population of 5 million.

While the infection rate has jumped, hospitalisations and deaths are still remarkably low by global standards.