Posted On: April 29, 2020


Good afternoon –

Today, we’d like to discuss New Zealand’s foreign policy response to COVID-19.

From the beginning of the outbreak we have engaged in a highly dynamic diplomacy, despite the fact that the crisis is preventing Foreign Ministers from meeting face-to-face.

As Foreign Minister, calls have taken place with 23 colleagues from around the globe.

From the very first call with China’s Wang Yi to the latest with Prime Minister Marape from PNG, we’ve grappled with complex issues around border control, repatriation, and we’ve shared COVID-19 experiences.

This dynamic diplomacy has been premised on the idea that no single country has a monopoly on wisdom, and we can make New Zealanders safer by learning from the experience of others.

We are also witnessing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s largest and most important consular operation in its storied 77-year history.

Here in New Zealand, more than 400 MFAT staff were mobilised, working three shifts to provide a 24/7 emergency response service focused on helping New Zealanders spread across 150 countries.

And our almost 60 Ambassadors, High Commissioners and Consuls-General around the world have as their number one task leading their teams to help our citizens stranded offshore.

It is also the most complex consular response a New Zealand Government has ever attempted – because rules around lockdowns, border crossings, transits and flight links were and are changing every minute of every day.

To give you a sense of its magnitude, during an average three-month period last year, the Ministry managed around 700 consular cases.

This year, in the three months since 27 January, MFAT’s Wellington Consular Call Centre has received over 11,000 enquiries; and provided consular support or advice to more than 4,500 New Zealanders in about 150 countries and territories.

On behalf of the Coalition Government, and as responsible Minister, we extend our thanks to Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade Chris Seed and his team of dedicated diplomats, consular officials and other professionals working on behalf of their country.

We are very proud of your performance.

We acknowledge criticisms of the government’s efforts from individual citizens caught in difficult situations offshore, and by the media on their behalf. That is natural but sometimes the anecdotal can shade the larger response effort.

So, today offers an opportunity to explain the foreign policy dimension to choices the government has made in its COVID-19 response.

One criticism is that we should have closed our border sooner, that we did too little too late.

Another criticism was that the government’s response has been too myopic and captured by advice from the Ministry of Health. Both critiques could not be further from the truth.

We went hard and we went early.

International comparisons show that New Zealand was extremely unusual in closing its borders to foreigners and in implementing a lockdown before we lost a single person to COVID-19.

Very few other countries did that.

More generally, we were faster than countries we generally compare ourselves with, to:

  • Require self-isolation by international arrivals, 17 days after the first Covid-19 case was confirmed;
  • Close our borders to foreign nationals, 20 days after the first confirmed case, and;
  • Impose a lockdown, 26 days after our first case.

These decisions were neither straightforward nor without debate.

Indeed, the Ministry of Health recommended a total shutdown of the border, including to returning New Zealanders. From its health perspective this was understandable and appropriate advice.

But the Coalition Cabinet rejected that advice because it was and is inconceivable that we will ever turn our backs on our own. So, on March 17, New Zealanders were urged to come home while commercial options remained available.

We built from scratch managed isolation and quarantine systems to mitigate against the heightened health risk posed by returning New Zealanders.

It was the right thing to do.

Around 80,000 New Zealanders have so far answered that call and travelled home since 14 March. Many thousands of those returning were assisted by MFAT.

This assistance has ranged from chartering planes to fly stranded New Zealanders home; getting Kiwis on to repatriation flights run by our partners, including Australia, Singapore and the United Kingdom; smoothing transit issues; and providing advice about travel options.

The managed exit of foreign citizens stranded here was another complex decision. The domestic movement of thousands of people risked our national health goals.

But one of the underpinnings of relations between nations is reciprocity. That is, we expect other countries to help return our people to New Zealand – so it would be wrong and dangerous to prevent foreign nationals from leaving here.

Cabinet rightly decided that, despite advice raising risks about the potential negative health consequences of such a decision, we needed to safely manage the exit of foreign nationals. So we did.

Around 45,000 foreign nationals departed our shores during the Level 4 lockdown.

Through these experiences we have built an effective delivery system for people safely entering and exiting the country, now and into the future.

Notwithstanding the ongoing massive consular effort, MFAT was also tasked three weeks ago with considering our post-COVID foreign policy priorities – and how we could use our foreign policy to support the domestic recovery and trade recovery that are starting to get underway.

Along with Minister of Trade David Parker, we’ll soon be discussing with our Cabinet colleagues how New Zealand positions itself in the new normal that emerges post this COVID crisis.

How we adapt internationally, how quickly, and how effectively, is crucial in promoting the peace and prosperity of New Zealand, and its regions, as it recovers from the massive disruption of COVID-19.

Thank you.