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Tongan businesses want economy to ‘get moving’

Friday 1 May 2020 | Written by Legacy Author | Published in Small World

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Businesses in Tonga are calling on the government there to ease Covid-19 restrictions to get the economy moving again.

The Tonga Chamber of Commerce and Industries (TCCI) is calling on the Tongan government to ease restrictions and provide financial support urgently, to help struggling businesses continue operating.

Business owners and managers have raised concerns over the negative impacts the continued restrictions are having on their businesses.

After Tonga’s borders closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic six weeks ago, the lockdown was made worse by Severe Tropical Cyclone Harold.

With state of emergency restrictions kept in place, many businesses have had to let go of staff, and reduce work hours.

Some businesses have shut down completely, Matangi Tonga reports.

The impact is most evident in the tourism sector, and businesses related to it, as well as the aviation sector.

Although the government is providing assistance through a Covid-19 Business Economic Emergency Relief Fund, and allowing duty and tax free imports of building materials as well as other incentives, TCCI says “more needs to be done’ to keep businesses operating, particularly in the short term.

TCCI president, Paula Taumoepeau, said while they support closing the borders to keep Covid-19 out of the country, he urged government to “look deeper into what it’s doing to help to assist businesses”.

“The private sector is the engine of economic growth, it’s where the jobs are. Businesses need to continue. It’s a must. It is important to provide support to businesses to keep them going so people can still work to keep the economy going.”

He suggested government should focus on bringing forward approved aid construction projects.

Businessman, bar and restaurant owner, Robert Sullivan, said the restrictions should be eased.

“Right now, in the kingdom with no virus, we believe it should be allowed to let people move around, spend what they can, while we can – because when and if Covid-19 does come here, we will be locked down completely.”

He stressed people will continue to lose jobs if restrictions continue.

Liz Cowley Sullivan, who owns and runs a lodge and restaurant business, believes Tongans need to start supporting each other.

“Currently it’s very sad out there. And we don’t want to lose our staff because they are like our family.”

Tevita Palu, owner of Palu Aviation Services Group of Companies which includes Real Tonga Airlines, travel agencies, freight forwarding services, and aircraft maintenance support, said his businesses are suffering as they are directly connected to the closing of the border.

“When it was confirmed the border would be closed, it automatically reduced cash flow to the airline by 70 per cent.”

But when the domestic service was stopped, he said there was no cashflow at all for the airline.

To date, Tevita has let go of around 150 employees. “That’s a lot and it’s difficult,” he said.

Meanwhile, the government has not yet indicated when financial support might be provided to businesses.

However, locally registered businesses have until May 1 to apply for assistance, under the Covid-19 Business Economic Emergency Relief Fund.

The current restrictions still in force in Tonga include:

- A national curfew from 9pm to 5am.

- Funerals allowed 20 people indoors and 40 outdoors with an authorised officer to be present throughout.

- Liquor licensed night clubs, clubs, bars and kava clubs shall be closed.

- Church services and church events allowed on Sundays only, with Seventh Day Adventists allowed to gather from sunset on Saturday to sunset on Sunday.

- All events and gatherings such as bingo, sports clubs, gyms, sporting events and activities, celebration of birthdays, marriages and other recreational or related gatherings are prohibited.

- Social distancing of 1.5 metres from any person at all times, use protective clothing to minimize risk of infection.