CEO, NZ Food and Grocery Council, Katherine Rich

The Ministry of Health is moving to counter criticism that it is using its powers to exempt trucks and workers moving in and out of Auckland to restrict workers going to jobs in potato crisp factories.

The chief executive of the Food and Grocery Council, Katherine Rich, is particularly critical that the role of granting the exemption to cross in and out of the Auckland Council region has shifted from the Ministry of  Business, Innovation and Employment to the Ministry of Health.

“Applications for critical roles in factories like maintenance and manufacturing engineers and machinery operators in biscuit, bar and potato snack factories have been flat-out declined, no reason given, meaning production has had to be scaled back,” she said yesterday.

“No one expects the Ministry of Health to be a champion of chips and cookies, but I hope that wasn’t a factor in declining such key manufacturing food roles.”

In a statement to POLITIK, a Ministry spokesperson said the Ministry was currently processing an application from a business in the ‘biscuit, bar and potato snack’ industry.

A spokesperson for Health Minister Chris Hipkins that this was not a matter for the Minister;

“This is a Ministry of Health health-based decision,” the spokesperson said.

“Politicians can’t come in over the top.”

But the bigger complaint against the Ministry is that it is taking too long to allow exemptions from its Level Three ban on people moving in and out of the Auckland Council region.

There is also a massive inconsistency between road and air travel with road travellers, including truck drivers, required to produce documentary evidence of where they are going and why.

However, air travellers are simply asked where they are going by a security guard on the air terminal door.

But the big issue on the roads is that there is a  huge backlog of applications for exemption.

The Ministry has received more than 10,300 applications for exemptions but has made decisions on just 1,900.

The Auckland Employers’ and Manufacturers’ Association CEO, Brett O’Riley, said the border restrictions were causing no end of problems, including essential goods and employees not being able to get through.

“Things have improved, but it’s still taking those who are entitled to hours to get through because of the sheer volume of vehicles,”  he said.

Police figures show that most vehicles are getting through.

105,963 vehicles had been processed through the checkpoints by Wednesday night; 5622 were turned around.

But Rich says some of those turned around have been essential workers in the food industry.

“Whether it was a lack of knowledge, resources or understanding about the urgency required, I don’t know, but what is clear is that the Ministry of Health simply wasn’t in a position to judge the merits of many food manufacturing applications,” she said.

“This has led to some facepalm clangers that are testing the patience of food and grocery manufacturers.

The inability of critical workers to get to work has already caused production issues for some manufacturers, and last week serious consideration had to be given to a potential shutdown of New Zealand’s only yeast manufacturer because key staff were not able to travel.

“It wasn’t until the Ministry for Primary Industries explained the flow-on effect of no yeast for commercial bakers and what that means for the New Zealand-wide delivery of daily fresh bread, that the travel application was finally approved after a week,” Rich said.

Kerri-Anne Martin, Health Safety and Environmental Manager at Nestles she applied for an exemption for her company’s factory workers, engineers and merchandisers first thing on Monday morning.

“I then sent follow up emails and sat on hold for long periods of time without being able to speak to anyone throughout the week,” she said.

“I finally got a response on Friday, and this was after much stress caused to our workers that lived just outside of Auckland and the uncertainty of whether they would be able to get to work.

“I’m ok with them limiting movements in and out of Auckland but the need to have better processes in place for providing the exemption, or have food manufacturing exempt from the beginning.”

The Ministry, however, says it has moved to streamline the process.

“The Ministry is processing a large volume of applications which are being triaged and then processed taking into account urgency and complexity,” a spokesperson said last night.

“The exemptions inbox is now being triaged in real time – this means as applications come in, they are immediately being assigned to one of 4 teams set up to process applications.

“Processing applications requires careful consideration and assessment on a case by case basis taking into account the individual’s specific circumstances or the criteria relevant for business exemptions.

“There are quality assurance and consistency checks through team leaders with an approval process based on risk and urgency.

“Urgent requests are prioritised, but for others, for example, where we are awaiting further information or the application is more complex, response times may be longer. “

But Rich said the system worked much better during the previous lockdown when exemptions to travel to work were granted by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment.and the Ministry of Primary Industries.

“They did an excellent job during the first lockdown but have been sidelined this time as the Ministry of Health has insisted on maintaining complete control,” she said.

“Those departments had a proven system which had worked well during Lockdown Alert Four when all workers in essential businesses could travel to and from work as long as they carried the appropriate documentation. 

“This advice was given by its public servant peers, but the Ministry of Health was adamant that it would take responsibility for all aspects of Auckland’s level 3 lockdown.

“Rather than using the system for level 4 of designating essential businesses and spelling out that essential workers could only travel from their homes to work and back, the Ministry of Health set up a totally new system where all applications for individual travel would be evaluated and approved one by one.”

The Ministry yesterday clarified its exemption processes.

People can now transit through Auckland without stopping in order to travel for work.

They must show evidence of the purpose of their travel and their departure point and destination, but an exemption is no longer required. 

Existing class exemptions have also been added into the COVID-19 Public Health Response Order to make them more visible and clearer for people. 

The mass exemptions include most farmworkers, supermarket workers, constructions personnel working on critical infrastructure and then employees of Rocket Lab and George Weston Foods (yeast suppliers).

Perhaps predictably, politicians who are electoral candidates are also exempt.

If the Prime Minister announces at her press conference this afternoon that  Auckland will move down to Level Two at her press conference this afternoon, then most of the border problems will end.

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