Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Damien Venuto – Government’s lack of business trust slowing recovery

OPINION:

Studies have shown that countries with higher trust between the Government and the people tend to have higher vaccination rates.

Russian sociologist Ekaterina Borozdina has written that Russia’s comparably low vaccination rates, despite being one of the first countries to develop a vaccine, are attributable to a history of fraught relations between citizens and the state.

Business consultant Stephen Covey saw so many examples of a lack of trust slowing down processes during his career that he felt inspired to write the 2006 book The Speed of Trust. In it, he argues persuasively that the higher the levels of trust in an organisation, the faster decisions and progress can be made.

On the one hand, we are seeing a lack of trust playing out with Māori and Pasifika population groups showing greater hesitancy to take the vaccine. After decades of inequitable policies, it comes as little surprise these groups don’t trust everything that comes from New Zealand’s political leaders.

But the speed of trust also runs in the opposite direction.

A government that doesn’t trust its people and businesses to do the right thing will also be more hesitant to give them a long leash.

In the extreme, this is why autocratic leaders govern with a paranoid obsession over who is doing what at any given moment.

New Zealand isn’t close to the North Korea level of control as histrionically suggested by former prime minister Sir John Key, but we are seeing examples of the Government’s lack of trust in business slowing our path to recovery.

This week, the chief executive of retirement operator Oceania Healthcare, Brent Pattison, took to the media to implore the Government to allow fully vaccinated members of the public to visit elderly family members living in aged-care facilities.

There has thus far been no movement on this request.

It’s important not to confuse Pattison here with some renegade rule breaker hell-bent on rebelling against the system. He’s a business operator who understands better than most what it takes to keep his customers happy (and alive).

Remember, retirement villages were the first organisations to shut down and isolate when the pandemic stretched its tentacle into the country. They take safety seriously.

With more than 60 per cent of the eligible population now fully vaccinated, Pattison feels confident they can manage visitations without endangering the people he’s paid to protect.

As a society, we trust these organisations to care for our elderly. Are they not the best equipped to determine what a suitable level of risk should look like?

The lack of trust is also evident in the communication between business and the Government.

After months of business owners asking for clarity on the immigration status of many migrant workers, Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi announced that 165,000 would be offered a one-off path to residency. Surely, the business community could have been given a heads-up that something in this vein was on the cards? Instead, it was treated as a big PR reveal.

Another surprise flung on the business community came in the shape of property law changes, which force landlords and tenants to strike deals over lockdown-related rent relief. NZ Property Council chief executive Leonie Freeman said this change came “completely out of the blue”.

It’s difficult to see how trust can be developed when changes are being introduced as though they are the prestige in a magic trick.

The communication gap was also evident in the media campaign being run by Sir Ian Taylor, in which he has called on the Government to bring on the bench in the fight against Covid. His argument being that the Government should start calling on the diverse range of skills in the business community to help solve the complex issues that are currently facing the business community.

The fact that an influential businessperson has resorted to writing op-eds in a newspaper to grab the attention of leadership provides an indication of the disconnect. One can only wonder what it will take for Government to finally heed the calls of the beleaguered hospitality sector for more support.

As the always level-headed Liam Dann wrote after the 4pm briefing last Monday: “For some time now [the business community] has felt ignored and forgotten by this Government, regarded as inconsequential in the grand scheme of the pandemic response.”

The frustration in the business community only continues to grow as more and more New Zealanders get vaccinated.

At the moment, there is nothing that differentiates an unvaccinated consumer from the more than 60 per cent of eligible New Zealanders who are fully vaccinated – and this needs to change as soon as possible.

The current MIQ system offers the best example of how this lack of differentiation can lead to unfair practical application. Despite the fact Covid-19 is already evident in the community, fully vaccinated Kiwis who have taken pre-departure tests are forced to spend two weeks in quarantine. The concession from Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins last week that the system was no longer fit for purpose suggests that change is coming, but it’s going to take a little more than that to win back the trust of businesses and Kiwis who have been trapped abroad in recent months.

This brings us to the next area causing enormous consternation in the business community: vaccine passports.

Fourteen months ago, New Zealand businesses told the Herald they were working on vaccine passports and looking into what form a universal health pass might take. And yet, the Government has now told us they are still working on it. Surely, the business community could have played a role in bringing this to life faster.

Air New Zealand was already testing a health pass in April last year and Israel has been using a vaccine pass for more than a year. The technology exists; it just isn’t in our hands yet.

The Government has promised a vaccine pass will be available within the next few weeks, but this is only half the challenge at stake. Putting it into practice is going to be the trickier part because it will again require the Government to lengthen the leash on the business community and allow for freer operation. In other words, the Government is going to have to start trusting businesses.

New Zealand’s business owners have placed an enormous amount of trust in this Government to get the nation through the pandemic over the past 18 months. The question facing the country now is whether the Government is brave enough to reciprocate and show a little trust in the engine of the economy.


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