The Beehive hasn’t seen drama like late yesterday since the financial crises of July 1984.
It looked like the Prime Minister is now intending to display a “get tough” response to the coronavirus pandemic which may well have been prompted by some media criticism of the border controls she introduced only last Monday.
The drama began after she flew back from Rotorua for an emergency cabinet meeting at 4.00 p.m.
Two hours earlier her deputy, Winston Peters, had hinted at what it might be about during Question Time during what appeared to be a piece of carefully orchestrated Parliamentary theatre.
Peter was standing in for Ardern and replying to a question from former National MP, Jami Lee Ross.
(Ross loathes National almost as much as Peters and NZ First carries Ross’s proxy vote.}
Ross asked whether the Prime Minister had “sought or received any advice on closing the border to all non-citizens and non-residents?”
Peters replied: “That’s an excellent question. The reality is that as of today, there are 28 and they all are connected with overseas travel—all 28—and so the answer to the member’s question will be, in my view, one that we will be imminently looking at, and will be able to give you answer not now but, I think, very, very soon. “
That sounded like the decision had been made to close the border.
But just before 5.00 p.m. journalists were advised an announcement would be made at 6.00 p.m. from 11.59 last night the border would be closed to all but New Zealand citizens and permanent residents. This would be the first time it had ever been done in the country’s history.
Ardern explained what had prompted it.
“I’ve had a Minister (Customs Minister Jenny Salesa) on the ground at the border (Auckland Airport) this morning,” she said.
Salesa told Parliament that the situation at the airport was basically working.
“Passengers are being questioned; they’re being stopped and required to hand over detailed information,” she said.
“One cannot miss the signage and the public address announcements at the airport.
“The responsibility of self-isolation is being made clear to all travellers.
“However, I am concerned about the experience reported by some of our travellers, which is why I physically went to Auckland Airport this morning.
“I saw areas where we can and should improve our overall border response, and I have tasked agencies with addressing these concerns immediately.”
Salesa told Parliament that after Peters had said an answer to the border closure was imminent.
And Ardern seemed to suggest that she had decided to close the border regardless of what Salesa reported.
“I’ve read reports,’ she told her press conference.
“I was not satisfied with the way the border was operating. “
There were already plans that from today there would be a new combined immigration and Covi-19 virus card for the (presumably) few passengers who continue to arrive.
The card will ask whether the passenger has been in close contact with a person who has been diagnosed with Covid-19 in the past 14 days and whether they have any symptoms of fever, cough or, difficulty breathing
Passengers will also be asked whether they have been tested for Covid-19 and then whether they intend to self isolate; and if so, where.
Until now passengers have had to fill out a separate questionnaire asking the same questions. Customs and public health personnel have been distributing and collecting the forms at airports and questioning passengers in the process.
It would seem Customs was under pressure from the Beehive to get the cards into use as quickly as possible.
Peters told Parliament during yesterday’s Question Time that the cards “ have already been published, printed, and issued, and are being issued as we speak.”
In fact, they won’t be in use until 3.00 a.m. today.
There have been claims on social media that passengers have been able to walk off an international aircraft and through immigration without any obstruction to their progress.
It would seem that Ardern had already been convinced before the special Cabinet meeting that what was essentially an “honesty box” system that she had only set up on Monday morning was not working.
“I wanted more intensive questioning at the border,” she said.
“I wanted conversations to be happening so that people fully understood their expectations.
“Now, of course, that will be happening only with retuning New Zealand citizens and residents because I have simply removed the risk.
“I’m not willing to tolerate risk at our border.”
What may have convinced her to act could have been rumours that Australia was going to.
And Ardern was quick to phone Australian PM, Scott Morrison, shortly after the cabinet meeting to tell him what New Zealand had done.
Earlier in the day, Ardern had announced that New Zealand would follow Australia and ban indoor gatherings of more than 100 and outdoor gatherings of more than 500.
The decision to close the border must surely be the final blow to the hospitality and tourism industries.
At last night’s press conference, Ardern was asked whether Tuesday’s $12.1 billion would now be enough.
“That was based on the fact that we would have a significant drop and in fact, essentially a real decline was in our international tourism,” she said.
“We already have border control started a month ago in New Zealand.
“It started with China, a considerable market. And then South Korea when we saw those flights ended.
“So we knew that requiring people to self-isolate would stop travel.”
Some planes will continue to fly.
They will bring freight and also returning New Zealanders.
Stats NZ said yesterday that an estimated 100,000–110,000 New Zealand residents are travelling overseas as of mid-March.
Of these, about two-thirds are New Zealand citizens and one-third are non-New Zealand citizens.
Stats said the estimate wasan indication of how many New Zealand residents may return in the coming weeks using International Travel data.
“It is based on departures of New Zealand residents in recent months who have not arrived back in New Zealand,” Stats said.
The Government’s decision yesterday will attract little criticism though perhaps it might be asked why it wasn’t done last Saturday instead of the “honesty box” self- isolation process which quickly proved to be able to be easily flouted.
It is a huge decision to close a country’s borders. But yesterday’s decision means New Zealand has joined two of its four other Five Eyes partners — Australia and Canada — in closing its borders. It would have looked odd if we hadn’t.