The New Zealand Government announced today that they’re highly confident that New Zealand has turned a corner in managing the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and they’re optimistic that this will mean an end to lockdown.

However, they were clear that to release pressure from the lockdown requirements could easily result in the virus beginning to spread again, which in a matter of weeks would return us to the place where we might as well not have locked down at all!

NO end-date to the lockdown has been specified, and the Government assures us that we will have access to the same information as they do, within a few hours of them receiving it.

What was significant, was that Ms Ardern was willing to warn companies to get ready for a change in Lockdown status.

What’s clear is that a change in lockdown will follow a reverse pattern – from Level 4, to Level 3, to Level 2. Education Minister Hipkins said, earlier today, that the reversal of Alert status is by no means as simple as the implementation of it. While New Zealand successfully implemented a rapid change from level 2 to level 4 within 48 hours, it wouldn’t be nearly as simple in reverse.

We therefore encourage companies, as we did in our recent Webinar, to begin planning for a drop in Alert status from Level 4 to Level 3 – perhaps in the next 2-4 weeks – and a further drop from Level 3 to Level 2 at some point in the future – perhaps in the next 4-8 weeks.

What are the rules for a return to a Level 3?

The details of the Alert systems can be found here:

A return to Level 3 would mean:

  • Limited travel would begin to resume.
  • Maximum social distancing remaining the key strategy to reduce infections!
  • Schools and education facilities remain closed.
  • Public venues still closed.
  • Mass gatherings still prohibited.

Clearly, businesses are seeking to return to operations as soon as possible, but we echo the words of Ms Ardern that too soon a return would compromise (and potentially render useless) the sacrifices made so far. The last thing New Zealand needs is a return to Level 4 because of an overly bullish and careless de-escalation of Alert levels.

What should businesses do?

To start, recognise that this is workplace change, and requires preparation, consultation and good communication in accordance with employment law principles.

Firstly, find out what can happen or what is even possible:

  • Contact your suppliers and clients/customers to understand what their limitations might be. This may have a significant impact on your own ability to re-mobilise.
  • Develop a plan to “heat up” your operations in such a way that you don’t over-utilise resources (with concomitant cost/wage increases).
  • Determine what needs to start first and build a chain of events that will take you from lockdown to operational again.
    • For example, if you’re a construction business, your initial priority may be a health and safety inspection of all sites and equipment that have stood neglected for 4 weeks, before you fire up any equipment!
    • It might be a good idea to do this through consultation with your employees, because those on the ground may have a better idea of what’s important than those in offices! Consultation is a core fundamental of workplace change, and this is a workplace change!

Then consider how it can be implemented:

  • Factor in social distancing in the workplace and remain working from home wherever possible! This might mean
    • rejigging your existing workplace practices.
    • accepting a lower work rate and productivity rate to preserve the gains we‘ve made; and
    • providing additional disinfecting and washing facilities that can manage the demands of an operational workplace.

When the announcement is made that the lockdown will end, and a time frame is given, THEN (and only THEN) consult and communicate:

  • Work out a plan through discussions and consultation
    • Create rosters to reduce the numbers of people on site/ in contact with each other while still achieving outcomes.
    • Remember that a plan that has some employees returning to work and others not, means that some of your employees are being treated differently than others. Some will be excited and relieved to return to work, and to higher levels of pay, but others will feel upset that they weren’t selected. Being able to consult, explain and face the hard questions head-on is vital.
    • Find ways to spread the benefits of a partial return to work around the entire workforce, if at all possible. This will be important.
  • Develop a workforce plan that you communicate to everyone.
  • Remember that your employees are under significant financial pressure and will put pressure on you as a business leader to make quick changes. It’ll be important to both maintain a safe rate of change, and take financial pressure, if you can, off your employees.

When employees return to work

  • Have exhaustive and consistent health-and-safety-related discussions and toolbox talks.
  • Do NOT tolerate disregard for social distancing – ensure that everyone knows that breaching social distancing will be treated as serious misconduct, and deal with any instances accordingly.
  • Maintain a high alert around employee health and well-being and take any respiratory illness seriously. Access CVOID-19 testing immediately and ensure contact-tracing records are kept and used to protect others.
  • If the re-opened workplace were to become an outbreak cluster, what you proactively did to prevent this (or what you didn’t do, which led to the outbreak) will be subject to stringent scrutiny.

Because the return to Level 3 would be a temporary situation that could, in a catastrophe, result in return to Level 4 and social distancing, keeping records for contact-tracing is critical.

In a worst-case scenario, we would be returning to Level 4 lockdown with a new outbreak of the virus that needed to be controlled and isolated again.

Make sure everyone maintains social distancing and keeps notes of when, how, and by whom, their “bubbles” are broken or compromised.