What’s happening at the coalface?

Interviews by Queenstown journalist Jenny McLeod

May 18 2020

 

Repatriation role for prominent travel industry personality 

Overseas workers living in Queenstown have faced a daunting challenge trying to return to their home countries after losing their jobs and income as a result of Covid-19 and there has been support at all levels locally to assist people to catch repatriation flights.

One such stalwart is Victoria Keating of xtravel who has played an immense voluntary role in helping people to leave the district.

“It all began at the end of March when local businesses and tour operators started contacting me to see if I could get flights to get their staff home. A lot of people had booked flights but airlines starting cancelling and then there was the added problem of even if flights were going, it was difficult to get people from Queenstown to Christchurch with rental cars not available and commercial bus services not operating.”

Despite this, a number of British people living in Queenstown were eventually repatriated after a ski instructor resident in the resort set up a website site – GetUsHome.UK. In the first  24 hours of going live about 500 people in Queenstown alone registered with numbers around the country increasing to around 3000.

Victoria worked alongside Air New Zealand and the British High Commission and during Easter around 80 people were able to leave for the U.K. from Queenstown.

She says some of the embassies, including Britain, were slow to react with repatriation flights and often there would be little warning of flight departures from Auckland and Christchurch.

“In normal circumstances people could make a flight to Auckland in time but this was not normal and 24 hours’ notice was not long enough to get people out of Queenstown. This meant that some flights were going out not full which has been particularly frustrating.”

In addition to the difficulties of internal travel people have been faced with huge costs.

“In some cases they have already paid a lot for tickets only to have flights cancelled and no refunds, just credits. Then they would have to purchase new tickets which could be anything from $1700 to $3000 in some cases. A flight which I organised some people on from Auckland to Sweden was as much as $3,500.”

Another problem , she says, is that many people who may want to leave Queenstown and go home have spent their savings and cannot leave or as is the situation for the many Latin American people in the resort there is no gateway to return to their country.

“Air New Zealand is no longer flying to Buenos Aires and at this stage there are no routes available with LaTam Airlines at least until July. What we have is a group of people who have no income and no support and they can’t leave , even if they want to.”

With the return of commercial flights to Queenstown Airport Victoria says it is easier to get people to  Christchurch and Auckland although reduced capacity is still an obstacle and seats are not always available.

She is continuing to help other nationalities, including American and Canadian people looking to return home while there are still commercial routes available but more border closures, such as to the US and UK are likely.

Victoria is also working with the Queenstown Lakes District Council’s taskforce drawing on her experience and knowledge of the travel industry, airlines and visa requirements as they try to resolve issues relating to the welfare of migrants.

“It has been such a nightmare for so many people in our community. It is hard for us, who call Queenstown home which is such a safe place, to fathom the sheer fear and uncertainty they are facing at this time. We have to do all we can for them as the next few months, which are expected to be very tough, unfold.”

May 15 2020

 

The Road to Community and Economic Recovery 

The Queenstown Lakes District Council is looking ahead to the massive challenge facing community and economic recovery in the aftermath of what has been an overwhelming welfare response in the district under the impact of the Covid-19 virus.

 

A dedicated recovery team has been established alongside the response team with Steve Batstone, redeployed from a lead infrastructure role with QLDC to position of recovery manager and Peter Harris, the council’s economic development manager, also part of the team.

 

Team spokesperson Marie Day, whose role for the past five years has been community liaison and policy and is now leading the community side of Queenstown Lakes’ recovery plans, says moving from the immediate response status to what will happen in both the medium and long term is significant.

 

“The recovery team is developing a recovery plan and the timing of that is a big part of our conversation, looking both at the next three months as well as what we need to achieve over the next year. Currently we have a huge number of migrants living here, many who are unemployed, but if they leave in the next three months it could change the dynamics as to how we need to respond as a community.”

 

She says community recovery needs to be a community wide response and not just a council one.

 

“It’s not just about what the council can do but what the people can do as well. We need to look at both what our community and our economy needs and one of the key things the recovery team has done is put forward shovel ready projects to the Government for funding which would be invaluable for stimulating the district’s recovery.”

 

The request is for $68 million in contributions from the Crown Infrastructure Partners shovel ready fund and if it is supported, Queenstown Lakes Mayor Jim Boult says not only will it kick start the district’s economy, but it will create over 1600 jobs and upwards of $1 billion in economic benefits.

 

The suggested projects include the transformation of the Queenstown Town Centre and the development of arterial routes which will lay the foundation for the enhanced town centre as well as improving traffic flow and supporting a new public transport hub.

 

Other proposals are to fast track the upgrade of the Shotover Delta Wastewater Treatment Plant, support for the Cardrona Wastewater Pipeline Project and Cardrona Wastewater Treatment Plant, to enhance parts of the Wanaka lakefront and provide new sports and recreational facilities at the Queenstown Events Centre.

 

Marie says establishing a community support and employment hub is an early focus for the recovery team. 

 

“Initially this will be a ‘temporary hub’ linked to current community facilities. This will also align with a longer-term community goal for a community hub with a concept being driven by the Wakatipu Community Hub Trust.”

Learning from the lessons of the post-earthquake recovery in Christchurch, Marie says it is clear that the role of arts and culture, for example, is vital in maintaining connection and the well-being of a community. 

 

“We need to look at what makes a community stick together and stay strong in a time of crisis and we will be talking to the Three Lakes Cultural Trust about their plans, many of which have already been identified in their cultural strategy.”

 

Discussions are being held with regional funders over what is likely to be required to ensure social services continue functioning over the next 12 months.

 

“It is vital the funders stay working in the community if we are to support some of the needs that will arise over the next few months,” she says. “There is already evidence and concern that there are increased mental health and family issues occurring post crisis with increasing pressure on people, particularly those who are now unemployed, and those effects are likely to be felt for some time.”

 

Marie says the recovery team feels there is an exciting opportunity for achieving both community and economic benefit as the district recovers from the crisis.

 

“You can’t really have one without the other. You need a good strong, healthy and vibrant community to create a strong workforce and good ideas to support business. Basically if Queenstown Lakes is to have a sustainable economy there needs to be a strong community to support that.”

 

A steering group has been established, made up of key people in the community to help formulate the taskforces promoted by Mayor Jim Boult, to develop ideas and proposals to diversify the district’s economy.

 

“There are already some great ideas coming through from people, which include both economic, environmental and social enterprise proposals” says Marie.  “Everyone wants to help, and we are quickly developing ways of evaluating and advancing these in partnership with the community.”

 

She says the recovery team welcomes the input.

 

“What we are trying to do is get the right resources invested in economic recovery along with community led development. We want to get the voice of our community into the recovery plan and allow people to step up and be leaders. It’s not about just the council doing it, it’s about us facilitating, supporting and guiding people to do things themselves.”

 

The team believes recovery is about being not afraid to take risks.

 

“We need to be brave and realise while some of the things we might try may not work, we do need to try them if we want to see a different outcome in the district,” says Marie. “Things will get tougher for everyone in the next few months but that doesn’t mean we can’t respond well and look to the future to help create a different, but hopefully better place in the long term.”

QLDC Emergency Operations Centre responds to Covid-19 Crisis

The Queenstown Lakes District Council’s Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) is the nerve centre for the community’s Covid-19 response and since lockdown began on March 25 has received over 6500 requests for welfare support.

EOC welfare manager Jan Maxwell, and colleague Simon Battrick, manage a team of people who deal with the requests made via the welfare registration form on the QLDC website and every effort is made to respond as quickly as possible.

“Our team undertakes things like food supply, clothing, accommodation, bedding and mental health support and we use the other wonderful groups in the community such as the Salvation Army and Happiness House who already have systems set up,” says Jan. “We are basically acting as a connector to all the available services and supporting the people who can’t support themselves.”

“Often people don’t know where to go for help and we can direct them. These are people who have possibly never needed this type of support or counselling before and suddenly it becomes incredibly stressful for them. By registering with the council they can get answers to the day to day things many of us take for granted such as what to do about medical care and prescriptions during lockdown.”

Queenstown Lakes has a number of vulnerable people in its community and the welfare team spent the first week of lockdown working with groups like Age Concern to make contact with elderly care facilities, offering support.

“There have been many offers of help in the community and Volunteering Central has been absolutely outstanding managing volunteers who carry out a range of jobs such as picking up and dropping off groceries or something as simple as a phone call to check on someone’s well-being,” says Jan.

“There’s many different levels of support and we want to reassure people that just because they can’t physically connect there is help at hand. It helps to make people feel less isolated and we are also asking residents to keep an eye on their neighbours, maybe it’s just a wave over the fence or a daily check to see that the curtains are drawn.”

Foodboxes are centralised through the EOC and a food voucher system has also been initiated to avoid creating a large food bank. Vouchers, where people buy their own food at the supermarket, are being widely used particularly by visa holders living locally who are not at this stage entitled to any government support. 

“They are the most vulnerable group we are dealing with and make up the majority of our registrations,” says Jan. “They can’t go home, they’re not working and they have to pay the rent. In some ways they are the forgotten part of the community but they are so important because they are the ones who make the hotel beds, work in the cafés and as cleaners. They are mostly young without support networks and come from all the world. It is a scary time for them, especially as English is often not their first language, and we want to do what we can to get them through this period.”

The welfare team urges people to use the QLDC website and register for assistance.

“It’s available to everybody and the more information we have the more we can help,” says Jan. “We are not going to be able to fix everything straight away but we have a highly skilled team working in the background, managing the volume of requests we are getting. We want to absolutely ensure no-one is left out.”

Click here for the latest Covid-19 news updates from the Queenstown Lakes District Council

Providing support where support is needed

Robyn Francis has been managing Queenstown non-profit organisation, Happiness House, for two years and while the Covid-19 lockdown is challenging the situation is not completely new to her after facing similar issues during the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

Living in the city’s CBD area which became a red zone she was forced into a lockdown situation.

“We had curfews and were not allowed to move around and couldn’t get easy access to food so I have been there before unfortunately.”

Robyn says Happiness House supported over 10,000 visitors last year, among them young and old people, families, immigrants and seasonal workers, and their focus now is on “keeping everyone afloat”.

“We set up our structures early on for Alert Level 4 so our team was well prepared. I am particularly impressed with the way all the agencies and the Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) have pulled together to ensure everyone is cared for. Really we are just operating our centre as before – we have just changed our mode from face to face physically to face to face online.”

During the first week of lockdown the priority was to contact the most critical and vulnerable clients on their database, making sure they registered on the QLDC welfare register.

“Many of our people are too stressed by the situation to work through the process themselves so we have in many cases helped them fill out their online forms, referring them to other agencies where need be,” she says. “Most of the concerns are around food and the system has been centralised so that people can have groceries delivered or be issued with a food voucher to spend at the supermarket.”

With Covid-19’s major impact on Queenstown’s tourism industry there are widespread redundancies which are taking their toll causing many Happiness House clients to struggle even further financially.

“People who are now out of work are very concerned about the future but we are also getting many calls from workers who, while retaining their jobs at this stage, are having to take 20 to 40 per cent wage cuts. It is certainly not a great situation and likely to get worse.”

Robyn is vitally concerned that everyone who needs help should get it.

“In particular there are the newcomers to Queenstown who don’t have any support networks. We are doing our best through social media and our existing clients to contact these people and let them know about our services. The fact we are all in isolation doesn’t help because they are not making contacts in the community who might otherwise give them advice.”

She also believes there are people in the community who will not ask for support.

“We know there are some Queenstown people who are finding life very difficult but for some reason will not take up offers of help. They need to know we are here. No-one should go hungry, there is a food channel of support available and we just want people to use it.”

With winter on the way the Happiness House team have very real concerns about many of their clients’ living conditions.

“There are still a lot of houses in the Queenstown area that don’t meet the Healthy Home standards,” she says.” We can’t have people going into winter with all this stress and then having to choose between heating or food.”

Robyn pays tribute to the wider community for its contribution and support.

“There are some special things happening out there despite the circumstances. One client was in the pharmacy and his credit card wouldn’t work and an elderly lady told him not to worry she would pay. That’s just one instance of the caring and thoughtful things going on.”

Looming humanitarian crisis in Queenstown

 Central Lakes Family Services Social Worker, Heather Clay, has endorsed Mayor Jim Boult’s claim that a “humanitarian crisis” is looming with the impact the Covid-19 pandemic is having on Queenstown’s migrant community.

“There is nothing more certain as this group struggles to cope financially after suddenly losing their jobs in the tourism and hospitality industries. While they are still having to pay for rent and food and general living costs, many are facing other difficulties as well which is where my colleagues and I come in. This is an issue that is unique to the resort towns in the Queenstown Lakes district.”

Heather has also been drafted into the Queenstown Lakes District Council’s Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) response team to focus on the “psycho-social” response.

“I am looking at difficulties people might be experiencing around health, welfare, medication or anything else that might be going on in their lives that has been exacerbated by the lockdown. At least five to ten people who have signed up on the QLDC’s welfare register are referred to me daily –  they are all overseas people, here on a working visa who find themselves without any support.”

South Americans, Filipinos, Germans, Australians and UK citizens number among the groups and Heather says the situation is incredibly frightening for them. 

“They may already have pre-existing mental issues such as anxiety or depression which is aggravated because they fear what’s happening and what the future holds. Our advice to them is, once they have been approved for food vouchers, to talk to their landlords about reducing their rent and there have certainly been some very humbling cases of that happening. We also encourage them to contact their embassies for support because at this stage there is no central Government assistance.”

Heather and her colleagues at the Central Lakes Family Service ensure the referrals have access to therapy and medication if they need it and if necessary refer them on for psychiatric input, something which is likely to happen more often as the weeks go on.

“We are seeing quite a lot of people with chronic health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and asthma but they are not funded for standard GP or hospital care. An example is a South American who paid $180 for a visit to the doctor and a further $170 for a prescription at the pharmacist,” she says. “The Southern District Health Board and the Ministry of Health are challenged by this, alongside the increased demand and focus for health care service in the region, with a higher per capita number of cases with Covid-19 than other parts of New Zealand. Health has certainly rallied in the area collectively to find interim solutions where it can.”

She is vitally concerned, like all the agencies, about what happens after lockdown. “If it ends tomorrow there is no tourism or hospitality industry and how this will affect this group of people is even more worrying than what is happening right now.”

Heather was integrally involved in both the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes working for the Canterbury District Health Board and has praised the QLDC and Civil Defence response to the crisis in setting up the EOC and making things happen.

“ The Salvation Army and NGO sector have come in strongly behind them along with a team of volunteers. We learned a lot from Christchurch about being prepared and much of that’s been operationalised. The council has been doing an amazing job along with the other agencies and we have also seen an incredible community response. The sense of belonging and connectedness is very, very strong and we also saw that in Christchurch and Kaikoura. Some people react well emotionally, and in other ways in this kind of situation, and have lots to give others. That’s definitely happening in the Wakatipu and Upper Clutha where people are always so good at helping out.”

Queenstown’s emergency response to Covid-19 seen as a benchmark

Queenstown’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has become a benchmark for other areas, according to Salvation Army Corps Officer Andrew Wilson, who says the system set up by the Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) and the social agencies is a well-oiled machine.

“Others, including Christchurch are using Queenstown as a model, replicating what we are doing here to deal with the crisis. Essentially it is how we have efficiently handled working through the numbers of people who have registered on the QLDC’s welfare website.”

“Initially it was difficult working out how you could be a social agency without social contact but we got there and hats off to the council welfare team who created the system we are using which is proving so successful.”

Andrew says the Salvation Army in the Wakatipu provided as many food parcels in the first two weeks of lockdown as it would expect to over a three-month period. 

“Most of the people using our services have never accessed them before. They are predominantly from the migrant community who are still, for whatever reason, stuck in Queenstown. Basically it’s a refugee type situation as this group has limited or no access to central Government assistance, they don’t have jobs and they can’t go home because their home countries have closed their borders.”

He says the immediate need for most of them is to pay their rent, which in many cases is over $300 a week, even after their landlords have agreed to a reduction.

“What we can do is alleviate the need for them to pay for food so they can direct more of their money into paying rent.”

While the QLDC organises food vouchers for people who can go the supermarket The Salvation Army delivers food parcels to those who, for whatever reason, can’t shop for themselves. 

“The food voucher system means we don’t have to make too many deliveries which means less contact with people for our teams. We operate two different teams so that we always have one group undertaking deliveries and another making follow up calls to people to ensure everyone is coping. What we are trying to do is to make things as efficient as possible to reduce the numbers on the streets as much as we can.”

Andrew says every day they are seeing more and more hardship in the community.

“We had one individual who was down to their last penny, had lost their job and needed to pay both  rent and a medical bill. Fortunately, we created a fund with Altrusa recently which helps with medical assistance for people who fall outside the realms of Work and Income. Through this we were able to pay the medical expenses and they were very, very grateful.”

While the Salvation Army and other agencies are currently focused on the challenges associated with the Covid-19 pandemic Andrew is mindful of the future when the local and national emergencies are over.

“Social services like us will be left to pick up the pieces so we are trying to ascertain how that picture will look after lockdown. It is really a matter of looking at the whole situation as a community and seeing how we can work together to help one another out.”

Putting Staff First

A Queenstown businesswoman has been determined to protect her 40 staff by putting them all on the wage subsidy and guaranteeing them 80 percent of their wages during lockdown even though it comes at a personal cost.

“Our business services the tourist and accommodation industry and we had a contingency of $180,000 which basically meant if we had to stop operating tomorrow we could pay everyone holiday pay and pay our rent as well as our suppliers. But obviously that fund doesn’t cover the 80 percent and it certainly won’t last long.”

Janice says the company is currently focused on staying afloat and being an essential service, she rotates two staff each day to work, so it is fair to everyone. 

“Our staff have been incredibly stoic and want us to be able to continue to operate. Some have been on the team for 15 years and they have been amazing, offering to go above and beyond for us.”

The company operates from two locations but despite pleas to their landlords there has been no reduction in rent. “One said no and the other hasn’t bothered to reply.”

 Janice on the other hand sublets space and has given her tenant a rent holiday “until she gets back on her feet. We are happy to do it because if we don’t support her now, we may not have her as a tenant later”.

Similarly her staff are facing tough times renting. Some have been ripped off by landlords and others have only had a minor rent reduction leaving them with about $100 for food a week after being paid the subsidy. 

“They have to pay tax on the $585 a week subsidy so it’s extremely difficult. I have actually been supplying all my staff with fruit and have emergency food packs available if it comes to that.”

Janice says it is so difficult to predict the future and plan for the next stage for her 20-year-old company.

“It’s a moving feast and I guess the frustration is that we are supporting people who we know will leave us. But I have a huge loyalty to all my staff and part of the heartache is knowing somewhere along the line we will have to say goodbye to some of them.”

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