To truly learn from lockdowns, we need to ask business

By Phil O'Reilly, September 2020

Auckland has now emerged from Level 3 lockdown and the frustration of many business owners is palpable. Clearly, we have learned that when you close Auckland down the rest of New Zealand also feels the pain.

We have also seen plenty of real and apparently unexpected problems at the border between Auckland and the rest of New Zealand. These issues have meant that businesses have been unable to do the simple things they have relied upon for years – like workers travelling to work and delivery drivers being able to deliver goods. They have had the added difficulty of the human and financial cost that this has caused.

Business confidence will once again be low and businesses will be feeling less willing than ever to plan for investing in growth and new jobs.

The sad thing is we have been here before.

Businesses have already been through Levels 4 to 1.

Auckland was locked down again in Level 3, but it felt to many as though some lessons had not been learned from the last time.

We still had corner stores open relatively normally for foot traffic, but butchers and green grocers were closed. And we still had what appeared to be very little preparation for the practicalities of how businesses would move across the false border of Auckland City and the rest of New Zealand.

Processes that felt last minute and ad hoc seemed to be far too much in evidence.

Frankly, we should have foreseen all of this and we should have consulted, scenario-planned and engaged upfront together, before the inevitable occurred.

As the Covid-19 crisis goes on longer, we are learning more about the disease and also what might work best to combat it when we have cases of community transmission. The government has assured us that this won't be the last time there is an outbreak of community transmission and we have to take that seriously.

Talk to business

But can I suggest that now would be the perfect time to gather some learnings from businesses and those on the front line about what has and has not worked – particularly from a business and employment perspective – around Covid-19 and dealing with it for the long term.

So, here is a radical thought: why doesn't the government operate a short, sharp public consultation process with emphasis on the business community?

This would enable business owners to give their insights to government around what has worked and what hasn't during the various lockdowns – with a particular focus on the latest Auckland lockdown. Unions and workers might also be invited to respond.

This should be public, so that government can hear not just from the insiders, but also what ordinary businesspeople say about what they found helpful or irksome. This would mean government is held to account for hearing those voices and also reacting to them.

The process need not be a lengthy one, but by garnering business opinions in a transparent way and then responding to them, we have the best opportunity of rebuilding business confidence and commitment to what goes on in the future.

If the Government can publicly explain to businesses why it is making particular decisions and why these policies haven't changed since the first lockdowns, then so be it. But we must hope that government will also be open to new ideas, new ways of doing things and an attitude of looking to the possibilities rather than just the restrictions.

A consultation process of this sort might even be a good way of helping rebuild business confidence and willingness to invest in growth and new jobs.

Government tells us that it is learning as it goes along. That is the right thing to do without question. A short, sharp public submission process inviting businesses to give their views and ideas about how to improve things for the future could be a very useful aspect of that learning process.

And who knows, some good insights might be shared that will be in the interests of all New Zealanders.