How to keep food on the shelf in Auckland? The short answer is to let essential food workers travel to their factories in and out of Auckland, says FGC Chief Executive Katherine Rich.

For the longer explanation about changes that need to be made to the current Ministry of Health’s inefficient and painfully slow approval process to allow essential workers to travel to work, read on.

New Zealanders are so very grateful for the work of the Ministry of Health (MOH) during the COVID-19 pandemic, and particularly the daily briefing sessions from Dr Bloomfield, which have been appreciated and masterclass.

However, from a food industry perspective there has often been a gap between the messages delivered in the Beehive Theatrette and what is actually happening in the management of the Level 3 lockdown for Auckland. For essential food workers who travelled to and from work to their factories safely during Alert Level 4, being barred from travel in Level 3 Mark II has been an unexpected disruption.

MOH’s new system to approve the travel of essential food workers so they can reach their factories and mills has been a shemozzle.

Last week, many applications that had been lodged on Monday were still not processed by Friday, close of business.

On Monday, an application was made for a flour miller so he could travel to work to (no surprise) mill flour for bread making and flour on supermarket shelves. It was only 8.30pm Friday night, following days of advocacy and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) championing, that the final approval for the miller to travel to work came through.

It should not have to be this hard to get common-sense decisions made to allow food and grocery manufacturing to keep going, to keep the supermarket shelves full while New Zealand works together during COVID. Some companies have received 11th-hour approvals only after spelling out impending animal welfare, food waste, or food shortages on the continuum between concern and disaster.

Some applications for critical roles in factories such as maintenance and manufacturing engineers and machinery operators in biscuit, bar and potato snack factories have been flat-out declined (no reason given), meaning production has had to be scaled back and shortages on supermarket shelves expected (as spelled out to the MOH in the application).

Now, no one expects MOH to be a champion of chips and cookies, but I hope that wasn’t a factor in declining such key manufacturing food roles. Needless to say, if there are any major out-of-stocks of New Zealand’s favourite branded packaged foods as a result of key workers being barred from work, we will not hesitate to explain why.

At the time of writing there are 1000s of exemptions that have not been processed, and for the food industry a week’s work has been lost for many workers who have roles that simply cannot be done via Zoom.

There’s the gripe, so what’s the solution?

The good news is the Government can fix this easily by simply delegating the responsibility for food and agricultural business matters back to MPI and/or the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE). They did an excellent job during COVID I, but were sidelined this time as MOH has insisted on maintaining complete control.

Those departments had a proven system that had worked well during Lockdown Alert 4 when all workers in essential businesses could travel to and from work as long as they carried the appropriate documentation. This advice was given by its public servant peers, but MOH was adamant it would take responsibility for all aspects of Auckland’s level 3 lockdown.

Rather than using the system for Level 4, of designating essential businesses and spelling out that essential workers could travel only from their homes to work and back, MOH set up a totally new system where all applications for individual travel would be evaluated and approved one by one.

MOH totally underestimated the number of applications it would receive. Suddenly there were more than 5000 applications. A couple of days later when the borders tightened, there were over 7000. Then there were 10,000.

Understanding the edict that all workers who could do their roles from home were to work from home, food companies followed instructions and only applied for critical staff who needed to travel to do their work within the factory environment. That’s when things became pear-shaped from the fast-moving consumer goods industry perspective.

Whether it was a lack of knowledge, resources, or understanding about the urgency required, I don’t know. But what is clear is that MOH simply wasn’t in a position to judge the merits of many food manufacturing applications.

This has led to some facepalm clangers that’s testing the patience of food and grocery manufacturers, and that’s not counting the poor beekeeper who lost 2.5 million bees because he was barred from getting across the border to feed them.

The inability of critical workers to get to work has already caused production issues for some manufacturers, and last week serious consideration had to be given to a potential shutdown of New Zealand’s only yeast manufacturer because key staff were not able to travel. It wasn’t until MPI explained the flow-on effect of no yeast for commercial bakers and what that means for the New Zealand-wide delivery of daily fresh bread, that the travel application was finally approved after a week.

I understand MPI also helpfully explained to MOH that given flour had been a priority product during COVID I, it would be a good idea to let the miller travel to the flour mill to get back to work. As I mentioned earlier, getting quick, obvious decisions like these should not be so hard.

It’s time for MOH to hand back the responsibility for food, agriculture, and business decisions to their colleagues in MPI and MBIE. That’s not to say that during COVID I the industry was in total agreement either, but we worked together constructively and understood their decisions came from a position of knowledge.

So far, health officials have declined the travel of maintenance, manufacturing, and environment engineers, machinery operators, merchandisers who keep the shelves full in supermarkets, manufacturing store people, and factory electricians.

It has been only after high-level advocacy from fellow industry association colleagues and MPI leaders that there was action to avert animal welfare issues in the pork and poultry sectors. Ditto food waste issues for horticulture and dairy industries. For example, MOH had not factored in how dependent Auckland was on vegetables being picked and delivered into the city and the people or border crossings required to make sure that happened.

While Band-Aid dispensations were hurried through for dairy and horticulture workers, for some reason MOH still did not include other food industry workers. To this day they are still blocking the normal trade of butchers and greengrocers despite there being no difference in the selection and sales process between buying in these stores and supermarkets or dairies.

All future mistakes can be fixed by reverting to the previous MPI/MBIE principle-based system overseen by Ministers Faafoi and O’Connor that worked well by comparison.

I am aware MOH officials have been annoyed and surprised when others have dared to critique the approach or suggest improvements when their “focus is on saving lives” in their “fight against COVID”. Of course, their tireless service is very much appreciated. However, good intentions, commendable zeal and current immense power does not give them carte blanche to implement pointless bureaucracy without question or suggestions for improvement.

The frustrating aspect in all this is that MOH’s new system is creating food manufacturing disruption while making no difference at all to safety. This may counterintuitive to some, but remember the essential food workers declined travel are the very same workers who travelled to and from work safely during the (supposedly) more severe Level 4 alert. I say supposedly because our barred maintenance engineers who keep our factories running are essentially in a lockdown 5 because they are being denied the opportunity to work.

I do hope that improvements are made. If not, there will be more embarrassing examples of clearly essential food workers being declined travel, and worse, factory shutdowns or production reduction, out-of-stocks on supermarket shelves, and the ensuing disappointment of consumers.

So, if you can’t get your favourite muesli bars, potato chips and New Zealand-made biscuits, it could be the maintenance engineer or machinery operator has had their request to travel denied. Fingers crossed for improvements this week.