July 31, 2020
Merewyn Groom

Benefits of cost recovery doubtful

Collecting fees for isolation may not stack up

The government announced on Wednesday it will introduce legislation to charge some people for their 14-day stay in managed isolation.

Those who test positive for COVID-19 and require quarantine will also face the charge.

The $3100 charge is to be levied against those who leave New Zealand after the rules come into effect and subsequently return, or those on visits of less than 90 days.  

A family of two adults and two children are looking at a cool $5,000

It’s not quite a per person rate, the proposal is to apply the $3,100 to the first person in a bubble, with each additional adult costing $950, and $475 per child. This is assuming they can all share a room. A family of two adults and two children are looking at a cool $5,000, not to mention the stress of being confined together for two weeks solid.

The new law is expected to pass through parliament next week, presumably under urgency provisions. The COVID-19 Public Health Response Amendment Bill will allow the Government to set payment terms, exempt certain groups of people, and waive charges in cases of financial hardship.

Is it worth it?

Given the charge will only be levied against those who are coming and going, the projected revenue is only about $10 million. What is less clear is the administrative cost to collect that $10 million. Potentially collection processes could eat up much of the collected fees. While waivers for those in financial hardship sounds sensible and compassionate, it could drastically increase the administrative burden on the Crown and on travellers. How it will work in practice is unclear, will people be required to pay up before flying? Possibilities of travel delays while awaiting decisions on fee waivers, and potential for appeals following the decision.

How do we handle those who simply refuse to pay?

How do we handle those who simply refuse to pay? Most of the people caught up in this will be New Zealand citizens, as very few temporary visa-holders can cross our border at present. This means refusing entry or deporting those who won’t or can’t pay is not an option.

What should not be ignored is that this new fee may prevent some people from travelling when they otherwise would have. If that means not seeing a dying parent one last time, or missing out on a family wedding. These are real costs borne by kiwis who happen to be living overseas.

What are the advantages?

With these practical and financial challenges it has to be wondered why it is becoming policy.  Under the current border restrictions, the cost of the managed isolation and quarantine schemes is expected to reach $500 million by the end of 2020. New legislation and the financial and social costs to recoup $10 million of that barely seems worthwhile.

The main advantage must therefore be political, perhaps driven in part by increasing anger in the community prompted by those who have chosen to break out of isolation for a variety of reasons.