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Private Sector Taskforce looks back on busy year

Tuesday 30 March 2021 | Written by Supplied | Published in Local, National

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Private Sector Taskforce looks back on busy year
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 initiatives.

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 support themselves.”

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 corporates.”

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 8.

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 per cent.

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 business types.

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.

                - Private Sector Taskforce