Industrial lockdown plan fell on deaf ears

Friday 10 Sep 2021

The first Level 4 lockdown hit big NZ manufacturers hard. But when one came up with a plan to allow plants to stay open safely, the Government wouldn’t listen

Last year, after New Zealand came out of our first Covid-19 lockdown, Tony Clifford went to the Government with what he thought was a pretty good idea. An idea which might save manufacturers millions of dollars if we went back into Level 4.

Clifford, managing director of big forestry and wood products company Pan Pac, proposed a Covid certification system. Government would draw up a set of standards which a manufacturer had to meet to operate under Level 4 lockdown. Companies would be audited independently and if they passed, they could stay open through lockdown. Think of it like a Covid WoF for factories.

“I advocated for it strongly,” Clifford says. “But there was no appetite at all.” Once New Zealand went back into Level 4 lockdown, Pan Pac had to shut down its whole operation. Clifford says he approached a range of government agencies with his accreditation plan, including the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. He also got in touch with ministers, including Forestry Minister Stuart Nash, who also has the economic and regional development portfolio.

“I said: ‘Why not prepare for the future?’ They basically told me there wouldn’t be another Level 4, so we didn’t need to worry.” It cost Pan Pac NZ$45 million when it had to shut down operations during the last Level 4 lockdown, Clifford says, although the company recovered about half of that when prices lifted.

But the company also let down local and international customers, many of which are part of essential supply chains. Housing and infrastructure projects, for example. Now it’s happening again.

“I was always fearful another lockdown would occur and my gripe is we lost a full 12 months where we had the opportunity to put in place a regime to prepare for it.” Clifford says managing risk isn’t new for wood manufacturers - they deal with factors like high voltages, natural gas and chemicals all the time.

And some of Pan Pac’s plant is highly automated, meaning staff don’t need to be in close contact with each other. Equipment like loaders have only one person in. Even if Pan Pac could operate at 60-70 percent, it would be a massive improvement on being closed altogether, Clifford says.

“We could have been certified against any standard, but there was no process in place for businesses to be assessed. Government didn’t want to put resources into it, because they said it wouldn't be needed."

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