Private Sector Taskforce consultation with representatives of Avatiu growers and fishermen, also including reps from Revenue Management Division and Ministry of Internal Affairs. TASKFORCE/21032941
A year on from the establishment of their business support office, the Private Sector Taskforce has now dealt with more than 1200 phone calls and walk-in enquiries from sole traders alone, in addition to many hundreds more from other business types.
A little over a year ago now, the Private Sector Taskforce
held its very first official meeting on March 4, 2020.
Not a moment too soon, some might say.
One week later the World Health Organisation declared the
Covid-19 coronavirus a global pandemic.
That same month, with the international flight schedule
pared back to just one a week, the Cook Islands border was closed off entirely
to any and all inbound air passengers – people could leave but no one was
allowed back in.
The border eventually opened back up to Cook Islanders and
residents of course, but otherwise not a single tourist has crossed the airport
tarmac since then.
The Private Sector Taskforce was formed to help support
businesses large and small through this disruption and uncertainty brought
about by Covid-19 – ideally it would have been disbanded months ago.
Instead, as the pandemic and its world-encompassing effects
have persisted, so too has the Taskforce.
Comprised of members from both the private and public
sectors – including the Chamber of Commerce, Tourism Industry Council, CITC,
Air Rarotonga, Cook Islands Tourism Corporation, Internal Affairs and others –
the Private Sector Taskforce (PSTF) tasked itself with measuring the impacts of
the economic downturn and determining how to best mitigate those impacts, with
a focus on providing practical assistance to local businesses.
Releasing its first white paper report promptly on March 15,
2020, the Taskforce predicted the likely effects the loss of an estimated 5.5
million tourist dollars per week would have on the national economy and made a
number of recommendations to government – recommendations that eventually led
to the establishment of the wage subsidy, the lowering of compulsory
superannuation contributions and discounted electricity, among other
A business support office at the Chamber of Commerce was
also established. “We’re being proactive in establishing this support office
and it will act as an information clearing house for businesses dealing with
COVID-19,” said Chamber and PSTF chair Fletcher Melvin at the time.
“It will also be a hub for ideas and will engage with
government, providing a business perspective and offering suggestions for
keeping the economy going to allow workers and their families to feed and
Obtaining funding via a grant from the Ministry of Finance
& Economic Management on April 9, the PSTF then committed to providing
ongoing support for business owners “over the next three months”. At that point
more than 500 people had already been through the little Chamber office,
although few realised that the Taskforce would be required to continue offering
their support for more than a year to come.
On April 16 the Cook Islands was officially declared a
Covid-19 free zone by then Prime Minister Henry Puna and previously closed
restaurants and cafes were permitted to reopen with physical distancing
measures in place.
“Now Cook Islands is officially Covid-19 free it’s the right
time to reassess the rules and restrictions,” said Fletcher Melvin. “It's been
an anxious time for business owners and employers – many of whom haven’t been
able to operate for weeks.”
“We have to start to rebuild our local economy first, so
when we open up our borders again we’re able to take the next step.”
Also during April, the PSTF conducted its first survey,
gathering information on financial expectations and assessing business
confidence in the community.
The results – as presented in the Taskforce’s second white
paper on April 22 – were predictably dire.
With tourism numbers down to zero, those businesses surveyed
anticipated that year-on-year income for the April-September 2020 period would
drop by 90 per cent.
While income had stalled, costs continued to accumulate,
with average operational deficit for the period estimated at $103,232.
“The survey paints a stark picture of the reality local
businesses are facing,” said Melvin.
“It reflects what we’re hearing every day from businesses
coming to the Taskforce office for help. In the past month we’ve had 440 calls
and enquiries from businesses in need – from sole traders like market vendors,
to small and medium-sized enterprises like cafes, right up to large
The following month, on May 18, a third PSTF white paper recommended
a package of crucial stabilisation measures to help businesses and their
employees survive the coming months. It called on government for an urgent
reprioritisation of expenditure to inject $17 million of additional grant
funding into business continuity support.
The Taskforce also conducted two surveys in May, one to
gauge the local business community’s reaction to the government’s economic
response package and another to assess training needs in the community. A
second survey following up on reaction to the economic response package was
also carried out in June.
Perhaps one of the Taskforce’s most important achievements
to date has been supporting the Chamber of Commerce’s rollout and
implementation of the CookSafe contact tracing system, after a pilot programme
was initiated in mid-June.
“CookSafe will be an essential tool in the country’s
frontline defences against the coronavirus,” said PSTF chair Fletcher Melvin.
“The pilot is a fantastic example of how the private sector and government can
come together as one to find solutions to our country’s biggest issues.”
Since that pilot scheme in June 2020, CookSafe has been
successfully extended to the whole of Rarotonga, as well as to Aitutaki and
more recently Mangaia. It has now also been adopted by Niue as ‘RockSafe’ and
will soon be enhanced with the addition of CookSafe+ Bluetooth capability.
In amidst the work being carried out on CookSafe, the PSTF
continued to conduct surveys and release white papers on a regular basis –
while also dealing with the tragic loss of key Taskforce member and Tourism
Industry Council president Sue Fletcher-Vea, who passed away suddenly on June
A dedicated and tireless worker on behalf of both the
Taskforce and the Cook Islands community in general, Fletcher-Vea’s passing
left a significant hole in the PSTF lineup, which would later be filled by her
Tourism Industry Council successor Liana Scott.
With Scott onboard, the PSTF continued their efforts at
pace. A July survey on worker repatriation was followed by an August white
paper calling for a ‘new look’ at tourism in the Cook Islands and suggesting
ways in which longer-term visitors to the country might be encouraged – this
included targeting New Zealand-based retirees and remote workers from around
the world. An addendum to this report which went into more detail on these and
other longer-term tourism options was released later in October.
In September another PSTF survey analysed the ‘cash burn’
rate for local businesses in an attempt to determine just how much money was
being lost from month to month. The results of this survey were laid out in the
Taskforce’s November white paper, ‘Understanding ongoing cash flow losses in
the private sector’, a major outcome of which was having the 50 per cent drop
in turnover criteria for businesses receiving the wage subsidy returned to 30
Heading into Christmas, the PSTF’s Chamber of Commerce
office continued to field hundreds of phonecalls and emails from concerned Cook
Islanders whose livelihoods remained in tatters. A glimmer of hope appeared
with reports that a full two-way travel bubble between Cook Islands and New
Zealand would open during the first quarter of 2021, but this date has now been
pushed out to “maybe” May.
A year on from the establishment of their business support
office, the PSTF has now dealt with more than 1200 phonecalls and walk-in
enquiries from sole traders alone, in addition to many hundreds more from other
Most recently, the Taskforce is now providing support and
assistance to around 300 sole traders who have previously failed to be eligible
for the sole trader grant due to having either incomplete trading records or no
records of trading at all.
The PSTF will assist these sole traders with the
registration process for RMD (tax) and CINSF (superannuation), gather
information about their business, and provide training in good bookkeeping
practice. This assistance includes helping with the required filing of returns
for a period of time so that the sole traders involved become familiar with
what their obligations are.
All that aside, the Taskforce continues and will continue to
provide business advocacy and support services to all those who need them –
whether this be via email, on the phone or in person at the office.
How long will the PSTF carry on providing these services?
The answer to that question remains the same as it ever was – as long as the
need is there, the Private Sector Taskforce through the Chamber of Commerce
will do its very best to continue the work it has been doing since Covid-19
changed everything for all those living and working here in the Cook Islands.