Five-stage border “opening” settings

On 3 February 2022 the New Zealand Government has finally announced its staged process to reopen New Zealand’s borders.  The shift away from protection to re-engagement with the world was inevitable with community spread of Omicron in New Zealand, but, despite the ‘spin’ added to the announcement witnessed this morning, what we see in practice will be interesting.

The published detail around the five-stage timing and criteria has been summarised in a table format here:

Border announcement 3 Feb 22 Steps 1-5

There are however a lot of unanswered questions and a fair amount of ‘meat’ to go on the ‘bones’ of the policy when it comes to the arrival of non-New Zealand citizens/residents in particular. Here are our initial thoughts.

End of MIQ (for most)

The shambolic MIQ process has been removed for all arrivals under the plan, except or those who are unvaccinated (who will still be able to enter, but will need to enter MIQ). Self-isolation will be required for a period of 10 days initially however that is likely to be reduced to 7 days by 13 March and could be lifted entirely if “safe to do so”.

This should hit the release valve for a significant number of New Zealand citizens/residents who have been prevented from entering due to prolonged inability to secure an MIQ space, for those coming from Australia (11:59pm on 27 February onwards) and from the rest of the world (11:59pm 13 March onwards).

What volume are we talking about?

The only expansion in the policy (from those who can come in now subject to securing an MIQ voucher) starts at Step 2 (from 13 March), but appears quite limited really.  The current border exception for ‘Other’ Critical Workers has been softened by a reduction in the salary threshold for those intending to stay in excess of 12 months (from $106,000 to $84,240) and removal of the requirement to demonstrate that the skills are not “readily obtainable”.  This means employers will likely still need to prove that the person has unique specialist/technical expertise and/or provide evidence of labour market testing, they can’t work remotely or manage in some other way with existing resources and there is also an element of time-critically to the entry to be successful.  That’s still going to be very difficult to prove in most cases.  Surely there will be a greater concession in practice around this highly-skilled focused entry, but the current information released does not support that assumption.

On the other side, demand for ’lower-skilled’ workers appears to have been addressed with working holiday makers being permitted entry.  However, this is on the proviso that they will “reopen on a rolling basis” with “staging and timing of individual schemes to be confirmed”, causing some concern here on actual volume to make any material difference to the chronic shortages also being experienced in this part of the economy.

In reality we are only seeing greater border opening on 13 April, but again, it is difficult to see a material change here too.  If you look at three of the four cohorts added, being existing temporary visa holders (not many of them still have valid visas if they were not here in March 2020), students (at a nominal number of 5,000) and Events/Sports (who mostly could secure entry anyway under the existing ‘Other’ Critical Worker settings), that does not appear to open up widely at all.  The remaining cohort being the “Class Exceptions for Critical Workforces” is yet to be determined, so we have to assume numbers will be limited there too.

By July 2022 (exact date not specified) for Step 4, things appear to start to move then.  Other individuals based in Australia who can legally travel to New Zealand, anyone who is currently from a visa-waiver country short term trips (such as the United Kingdom, United States of America for example), and visa holders issued work visas under the new (although policy yet to be released) accreditation scheme earning over $56,160 can start to come in.

Finally, for Step 5 general visitors from non-visa waiver countries will be permitted to enter from some date in October 2022 (e.g. China, India, etc).

While it is fantastic to finally allow a large cohort of New Zealand citizens and resident visa holders entry to New Zealand without MIQ and therefore permit their long overdue entry, this is still a very restricted and controlled border opening that most certainly will not resolve all issues associated with the significant demand for both highly skilled and lower skilled occupations until at least 13 April, but realistically these issues won’t be properly addressed until the later Steps 4 and 5, which don’t take effect until July and October.  In this sense, there is still a lot of pain for New Zealand employers (generally) to secure the volume of migrants they require, at both ends of the skill spectrum.

Where do business and investor migrants fit in?

When it comes to investment and business (under the Investor 1, 2 and Parent Retirement Categories etc), where are they? On writing this article the Business Migration Branch do not know yet whether they can issue resident visas under these products (post investment) to offshore applicants to allow entry post 13 March at Step 2, and if that is not the case, we can only assume (hope) that they will be classed as “priority travellers” from 13 April, but no detail on that definition yet.

Practicalities and timing: what does it all mean?

The major point that most will miss in relation to these settings and the “what does this mean for our business” question, is the timeliness of the release of the ability to apply for these visas and also Immigration New Zealand (INZ) to issue them. At first flush the reader will think that people under the different cohorts will be coming in from those dates.  That’s not the reality for most.

Take for example Step 2 for working holiday makers, the policy will only be changed to allow applications from 14 March (i.e. you can’t apply before the entry date to line up your visa).  Noting here that from 1 March 2022 there is going to be an estimated 150,000 resident visa applications under the 2021 Resident Visa Category submitted to INZ that are receiving priority processing, that does not bode well for processing times on visa products outside those.

Taking into consideration that significant new volume of work, with the existing processing times for border exceptions and other eligible visa products, then unless INZ upscale and train significantly or create some type of significant efficiency gains in a short period of time, we are anticipating quite significant delays in visa processing, which means that practically speaking, some of these entry dates will become irrelevant.  For example, for the new classes of exceptions for critical workers who will be able to enter the country from 12 April, we are picking that by the time they release that policy, and allow applicants to apply for it, it could be many weeks (or months) before the entry visa will be issued for the applicant to actually travel here.

It is important therefore in this respect, that while we do have a road map opened in relation to the technical ability to potentially gain entry, the speed of the ability to enter at each of these phases depends on how quickly INZ will process those visa applications and in this respect, we are not holding our breath.  The gates and assumptions around timing are therefore misleading (in practice).

There will be more to come from us over the coming weeks as more policy detail is released and we start working our way through these settings.  It is great, to finally have a road map in place (although key sections still need to be released), but employers should note here that there is still a fair amount of pain before some material relief is to hand, and for investors, hopefully confirmation soon your applications will be completed and you will also be permitted to enter too.

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Keep an eye out for our upcoming seminars and webinars where we will unpack the more detailed policy announcements as they are released.

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