Coronavirus: 65 MFAT staff returned to New Zealand during COVID-19 crisis

Airplane in airport at sunset. One worker leaving the airplane on empty cargo vehicle.
Photo credit: Getty

By Jo Moir of RNZ

One quarter of New Zealand's diplomats returned home as the COVID-19 crisis deepened and six embassies had to temporarily close, leaving some expats without local consular support.

While the vast majority of the Ministry of Foreign Affair and Trade's (MFAT) 60 posts have remained operational during the COVID crisis, offices in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Bridgetown in Barbados, Chengdu in China, Tehran in Iran, Warsaw in Poland and Yangon in Myanmar were all shut down and remain closed.

Separate to these temporary closures, the Baghdad embassy in Iraq will permanently close at the end of the month, given New Zealand troops are pulling out of the country.

RNZ can reveal in total about 65 MFAT staff returned to New Zealand over the last couple of months from a range of overseas locations - at any time there are about 260 ministry staff deployed internationally.

While approximately one-third of the staff who came home have been approved to return to their posts, many have been unable to due to there being limited flights.

A spokesperson for the ministry said, "it may be some time before all staff are able to return".

"In some cases departed staff have been backfilled by New Zealand-based staff who have volunteered to travel overseas''.

MFAT plans to reopen its Warsaw embassy within the next month and will continue to review the other temporarily closed offices on a regular basis.

While staff numbers have thinned out at consulars, the need for support has increased as New Zealanders stranded overseas scrambled to get home and sought Government assistance with repatriation flights.

"We have continued to provide timely consular assistance to New Zealanders wherever they are via a 24/7 emergency response centre and consular call centre in Wellington,'' a MFAT spokesperson said.

Where there is no MFAT post or the embassy had been temporarily closed, support was provided either by staff in Wellington or those in nearby embassies.

"Staff who returned to New Zealand continued to work remotely to the post, in their regional division in Wellington, or in the ministry's dedicated COVID-19 emergency response centre,'' a spokesperson said.

The ministry will only return staff to their posts when it is both safe and possible to do so.

"The ministry follows a robust risk assessment process to inform our decisions as to when it might be safe for individual staff to return, including advice from the ministry's health provider.

"The risk assessment process includes a range of factors, including the prevalence of COVID-19 and rates of transmission, the in-country response in managing the pandemic, and the quality and capacity of the available health services, as well as the individual circumstances of staff,'' a spokesperson said.

Where it is not safe for the ministry to return a staff member due to their individual circumstances, it "may reinforce posts with staff on a short-term relief assignment, where flights are available and borders are open''.

"The ministry is focusing on returning staff to posts before considering the circumstances of staff due to deploy to new postings later in 2020,'' a spokesperson said.