The COVID Diaries: New Zealand service provider 2

The following interview is with a New Zealand-based service provider to the debt capital markets. It was conducted on 12 June 2020.

New Zealand is officially the envy of the world, having lifted its social distancing restrictions completely. How have you taken advantage so far, and what are you planning to do that you haven’t been able to for a while?

On a work basis, it is quite good that we are gradually opening our offices up, with a drip feed of people returning. We were in close contact with each other over Microsoft Teams but the opportunity to go into the office and speak to people face-to-face has been great.

The ability to be able to go and do normal things and not think about whether what you are doing is restricted or not, like going to bar, going to the shops or getting on a bus, was initially strange. These previously normal things now feel like an adventure. There is a feeling here that everything is on the path back to something like normality. The fact I will be able to fly to Wellington for work in a couple of weeks also signals this return to normality.

Having said this, I think New Zealanders were over lockdown a few weeks ago – people were more relaxed in what they were doing, rightly or wrongly. However, the most important thing is that live rugby starts this weekend!

Are you apprehensive about domestic air travel at all?

No. Someone said to me the other day I am more likely to win the lottery than run into someone with COVID-19. I don’t think that quite stacks up but it is the logic that I am employing. I am also not in the age bracket that the virus should adversely affect me, have no underlying health issues and I am quite fit.

Putting aside things relating to international travel and the economic consequences of closed borders, how long do you think it will be before day-to-day life in New Zealand is back to normal?

In level two, which we came out of on Monday and were in for two weeks, it was still quiet even though you could go to bars and restaurants. I was talking to an owner of a bar in the CBD and she was saying, “I need level one”.

I am pretty laid back about it all but there are a lot of people who are worried and just want to stay home still. Even though we are as COVID-19 free as it is possible to be, people are still concerned.

Throughout the whole lockdown, our company ran a fortnightly survey to keep on top of how people’s mental and physical wellbeing was going, and it was interesting to see some of the results and comments. A lot of people talked about the fear of public transport and the fear of being around people. For some people, eradicating that fear will take a long time.

But I really do think we need to get out there and start rebuilding the economy. A lot of people have lost their jobs and unfortunately there will be more – double digit unemployment is a possibility. We averted a health crisis, but we have created an economic crisis and we have not seen the worst of it yet. We have had the lowest GDP in 160 years and we are going to enter a period of recession in the next 6-12 months.

It is very important that people support their local businesses as well. I’ve been purchasing goods from cafes and restaurants even though I don’t particularly want them at the time. I buy them because I want those places to be around when I do want what they have to offer.

“Someone said to me the other day I am more likely to win the lottery than run into someone with COVID-19. I don’t think that quite stacks up but it is the logic that I am employing.”

There has been a lot of talk during this period of how things will never be the same, with much more home working in future and long-lasting self-imposed social distancing. What is your view from the other side of restrictions?

A lot of businesses have realised that working from home can work for people. When we went into lockdown in March we had to get more than 200 people to work from home immediately. That was a mammoth task and I can only salute the IT team in achieving it.

We are currently in the process of updating our flexible working arrangements and guidelines so people do have the ability to work from home. I don’t think everyone wants to do it and I don’t think people should do it all the time, but if productivity can remain as high, or even get better, there is no reason not to. It can even save businesses money as they will potentially need less office space.

Since I’ve been working from home I have made the effort to dress in smart-casual to get in the right frame of mind as if I have been going to work.

My biggest fear is that sartorial elegance in the office is going to take a huge hit! I love a nice suit with a great shirt and tie combo but working from home I’ve been quite comfortable in shorts, t-shirt and a hoody. I am concerned this might eventually lead to jandals in the workplace.

In all seriousness, it is going to be interesting to see what happens. I was talking to a friend who is a tailor and he thinks people will shift from having three mid-price suits to one expensive suit for important meetings while the new accepted office attire will be smart casual with chinos and blazers to the fore.

How have you found cycling during lockdown? It has presumably been nice not having as many cars on the road.

It has been very enjoyable as throughout lockdown the weather has also been quite good. It was said cyclists shouldn’t be riding together and should be sticking to their local neighbourhoods. I, therefore, fashioned a 12-kilometre loop so I was always within five kilometres of my house. I would go out and, depending on how much time I had and how I was feeling, I would do anywhere between one and four loops.

I cycled not just to stay healthy physically but also mentally – an hour or so on the bike was such an effective way to get away from any concerns about the pandemic.

There were no cars on the road but there were lots of people walking. It was interesting that as soon as people are told they are not allowed out, they were out walking.

Was elimination the right strategy – and, if so, will you still think so if New Zealand has to keep its borders closed for what could be a matter of a year or more to maintain a COVID-free environment?

This is the million-dollar question. I don’t think any government in the world is going to come away with a perfect record on dealing with such an unprecedented situation – how could they?

Lots of people, including myself and my friends, were and are still having debates about whether we went into the right level of lockdown straight away and if we come out of levels at the right time – I don’t know, and I am not sure anyone really does. However, to quote Churchill: "This is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end, but it is perhaps the end of the beginning."

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