Tuesday, 31 March 2020 11:18

COVID-19: Our only chance to get it right

Written by  Peter Burke
Damien O’Connor: “The stakes are very high if we don’t do this properly.” Damien O’Connor: “The stakes are very high if we don’t do this properly.”

Ag minister Damien O’Connor says if NZ doesn’t get this four-week COVID-19 shutdown right, the chances are this will go on for a long time.

As the level four alert came into force last Thursday, O’Connor spoke to Dairy News, adding that there has been a huge amount of responsible planning right through the farming and horticultural sector.

“We have to realise that the few who may not think this is necessary could put us all at risk……the stakes are very high if we don’t do this properly,” he says.

O’Connor says the rural and framing sector has a huge opportunity and privilege through this crisis to operate and run their businesses. 

But he says like what’s happening across the whole economy, things have to be done differently in the farming sector over the next four weeks.

Rural Service providers have closed stores and are taking orders from farmers on telephone and online. Deliveries and pick-ups are done without interaction between the farmers and salesmen.

The focus for the next four weeks is about reducing travel and contact with people and between people so that NZ can get ahead of this virus..

“If that does not happen in the next four weeks the ongoing challenge for every industry is huge,” he says.

O’Connor says the government has ensured that in designating essential services status to the whole of the primary sector, issues such as animal welfare and seasonal harvesting can addressed in the normal way. He says the pressure on the meat processing plants has been there for some time and will continue as they manager their internal risk and staff placement which will inevitably affect their levels of productivity. 

“We have ensured that the supply chain for essential items in farming is maintained but there are some items that are less essential and they will be hard to get. Thousands of businesses are badly affected and they have to do their bit which will probably mean reduced turnover and reduced profitability at some point,” he says. 

In terms of the dairy industry, O’Connor says many dairy farmers have been winding back their production because of drought or moving close to the end of the season. He says some may choose to move forward with that, but says clearly the opportunity is there for them to continue to produce milk and have it processed and then allow the companies to shift that into market.

“There are uncertainties at every level of the production and supply chain. We have done our best to offer security to the primary sector but these are challenging times for everyone and there are many unknowns,” he says.

O’Connor says he is in lockdown and “very busy” working from home. But he says like many New Zealanders he is able to do most of my work from home. 

He says he has one final key message for farmers:

“The privileged of being able to carry on a sort of normal way should not insulate farmers and growers from the reality of the fact that the world has changed  and that unless we can control this virus, every part  of our sector, our economy and community will change,” he says.

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