Papers released in yesterday’s Government document dump show just how different life could have been under Alert Level 4 lockdown if the Government had acted on official advice about takeaway delivery, liquor stores and butchers.
The Government released hundreds of files yesterday pertaining to its decisions around Covid-19, and papers about essential services show Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) officials pushed for takeaway delivery services to operate, and for some butchers and liquor stores to open.
In a briefing that went ahead the day before the country went into lockdown, officials said they thought contactless delivery takeaways could go ahead safely during Level 4.
They said the move would manage public anxiety about food availability, and would “contribute to maintaining civic order”.
The paper said the public health risks involved in food preparation for delivery to customers could be managed “with appropriate health, hygiene and safety measures”, and that providing takeaway meals was comparable to kitchens in hotels which were continuing to operate at Level 4.
“Food delivery services are a key way of providing prepared meals to people,” the paper said.
“Particularly those who may be unable to cook food themselves, or access supermarkets easily (eg disabled people, or people who may have reduced access to supermarkets through public transport).”
“While social services could fill this gap, food delivery services are already performing this function. Food delivery services could also be essential in feeding people, at large-scale, who may be housed in temporary isolation/quarantine facilities.…Kitchens may put measures in place such as requiring staff to wear PPE.”
In the same paper, concerns were raised about lack of access to liquor, leading to issues for addicts, the stockpiling of alcohol, and illegal ‘booze runs’.
The case was made for liquor stores to open in the same way as supermarkets, by managing entry into the premises.
“There are areas in New Zealand where liquor cannot be obtained from supermarkets nearby,” the paper said.
“This means there is a risk that, if liquor outlets cannot operate at Level 4, there could be implications for people for addiction issues. New Zealand Police are also concerned about scarcity of alcohol leading to stockpiling, or a run on liquor stores in the next two days.”
“Another risk is that closing liquor outlets may lead to people doing “booze runs”, where they travel beyond their communities to get alcohol. This will impact our ability to contain transmission.”
That ended up being the case in West Auckland, with The Portage and Waitākere Licensing Trusts stopping selling spirits and pre-mixed RTDs after reports of people travelling from outside the area to buy booze.
Liquor stores in licensing trust areas were able to operate in Level 4, but the paper said it would be easier to have the same rules apply to all liquor stores as it would be easier for the public and the stores to understand the rules.
In another paper it was also recommended that butchers be allowed to open under Level 4, because of particular concerns around access to halal meats and the animal welfare of pigs.
Agriculture minister Damien O’Connor and Commerce and Consumer Affairs Minister Kris Faafoi argued that there was not enough capacity to hold surplus pigs on farm or pig carcasses in processing facilities, leading to welfare issues, and that there was insufficient access to halal meat at supermarkets.
1 NEWS spoke to Kiwi Muslims and halal butchers about their concerns shortly after the lockdown came into force.
Many said the only way for devout Muslims to access 100 per cent certified halal meat is through accredited halal butchers, and that some people would be forced to go vegetarian for the duration of Level 4.
The paper backs up that claim, saying that while all meat is slaughtered in New Zealand to halal standards, supermarkets can’t process halal products and also couldn’t guarantee the halal products wouldn’t be cross-contaminated.
“Some supermarkets do stock halal goods. However, the feedback received is that many in the community would not be comfortable buying from supermarkets. The supermarkets have also indicated that they would not be able to manage the required volume of goods,” the paper said.
“Allowing halal butchers to open for processing and retail on limited basis would enable Muslim communities to continue to access meat products.”
A decision was reached on April 1, but only the recommendations about pork processing were taken up. Butchers were allowed to open to process pork to supply supermarkets and other retailers, but the rest of the decision was redacted.
Halal butcher Shafeel Khan was forced to close his doors by police during the lockdown, but said he wasn’t surprised by the Government support for halal butchers, as he’d been told by officials they believed he was operating an essential service.
“It was frustrating, the hardest thing was when we had to close everything and then the Prime Minister said we could have been doing online deliveries all along, we knew absolutely nothing about that, there had been no information,” he said.
He said while he thought the Government has handled Covid-19 well overall, there were definitely things that could have been done better.
“I think the biggest issue for the ministry was that if they allowed halal butchers to open there would have been an uproar from other butchers, it would have got really messy. There were a lot of inconsistencies.”
“We’ve lost about $200,000, in the last couple of months, it’s a lot of trading. Our community’s quite old school, they don’t go online, they’re not tech savvy, so we’ve lost out on that. It’s done now and a lot of the response has been awesome but there’s a lot of lessons we can learn.”
In describing the essential services “regime” during Level 4, officials said it had been “relatively” successful, and frequently mentioned the uncertainty around the rules.
Officials admitted that while there were clear examples of what was deemed essential and what wasn’t, there was “a large grey area in the middle”.
“The speed with which we moved to Alert Level 4 has resulted in instances where inconsistencies or interpretation issues have emerged”.
But papers said there had been strong public support for essential service rules.
“Public support includes many examples of significant social and general media pushback on firms who have been testing the boundaries of what ‘essential’ might mean.”
Health Minister David Clark says Covid Committee Ministers considered a range of advice when making decisions about essential services during lockdown, and ultimately health advice around reducing contact during Level 4 underpinned the Government’s decisions.
“Allowing food deliveries would have seen significant numbers of kitchens open during Level 4 that would have increased the risk of the virus spreading.”
“Likewise, people had access to alcohol throughout Level 4 at supermarkets and through online purchases, but the need to reduce person to person contact meant that retail stores could not open.”
Agriculture minister Damien O’Connor says Cabinet had to make “difficult decisions” to ensure Level 4 was effective, and that the butchers which were allowed to open for the processing of pork weren’t allowed to fully open to the public.
“The decision was made to ensure reductions in the amount of contact occurring at Level 4….and to maintain consistency with other face to face retailers that were closed at Level 4. That is why Cabinet also decided that Halal butchers should remain closed at level 4.”