Coronavirus: Business leader calls for 'flexible' level 3 in Auckland to boost economy, experts wary

An Auckland business leader has questioned the Government's view that level 3 restrictions allow up to 90 percent of normal economic activity to continue, claiming it's actually far less than that. 

Michael Barnett, head of the Auckland Business Chamber, says only 15 percent of businesses will be operating at 75 percent or more, and is calling for flexibility at level 3 for hard-hit industries. 

The city will end its five-week alert level 4 lockdown on Wednesday, going to level 3 despite mystery cases still popping up most days. On Friday, Finance Minister Grant Robertson said 80 to 90 percent of economic activity was still possible under level 3, with more businesses able to operate via contactless trading than at level 4. 

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment estimates 300,000 more people will be physically at work under level 3, the NZ Herald reported - most of them in industries whose workforces skew younger, and so are less likely to have been vaccinated yet.

Barnett told The AM Show on Tuesday a survey of members found economic activity would be likely far lower than Robertson's estimate.

"In actual fact if you have a look closely, about 50 percent of businesses will be able to operate at about half-pace. A further 5 percent would operate about 75 percent, and only 10 percent of businesses are going to be able to operate at 100 percent. 

"So it's going to be a case of businesses being as innovative as they can to try and do as much business as they can at a level 3 environment."

He said it would be good if the rules were amended to "provide a flexible environment" at level 3 in Auckland, considering how much the rest of country depends on the city economically.

"I think it's a recognition that the rest of New Zealand is dependent on the supply of product out of Auckland in order that they can operate - that's in areas like housing and construction, and some flexibility and respect of those that can come back to work in the environment in which they're operating. 

"Businesses are going to have to be innovative. We need as much support from the Government as we can to be innovative and creative."

Epidemiologists fear the move from level 4 to level 3 is already risky enough without further loosening of the rules. 

Michael Barnett on The AM Show.
Michael Barnett on The AM Show. Photo credit: The AM Show.

"At alert level 3 it's possible to stamp out the outbreak fully and return to elimination status, but it's just going to be a bit harder," University of Otago infectious disease expert Michael Baker told Newshub. 

"This is a calculated risk, because many of the epidemiologists and modellers I've talked to - there's not a lot of us in the country - I think the consensus view is that this is quite a significant risk. We know that alert levels 3 and 4 are there to stamp out outbreaks, but with the Delta variant it's changing - it's so infectious."

Others suggested rather than making the rules "flexible", the Government should tighten them up - Dr Baker's University of Otago colleague Nick Wilson calling for more mandatory mask mandates, and University of Canterbury disease modeller Michael Plank saying it has the potential to "add fuel to a smouldering fire" of mystery cases. 

"Contact tracers are finding that most new cases are not being infected in essential workplaces or services, but via extended family or friends," Dr Plank said. 

"This means that some increase in the number of workplaces and services operating at level 3 may be a relatively low-risk way to relax the lockdown, provided they carefully follow the appropriate procedures. But, it also means it’s absolutely crucial that people continue to stick to their bubble and don’t take level 3 as a signal that it’s OK to meet up with family and friends."

Barnett said with 86 percent of businesses in the Chamber's survey reporting a 'wellbeing' score below five out of 10, they will be "extremely relieved" to have staff back on the job nonetheless.

"Many of them are absolutely drowning in debt and needing an opportunity to get back to business and do what they do well." 

Auckland's initial time in level 3 is set down for two weeks. Dr Baker said it should start to become apparent about halfway through that whether it's working or not.