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Government Covid lockdown silence impacting more on Southland than the virus itself

October 21, 2021 Share

The Government’s lack of direction around COVID-19 is impacting more on Southland businesses and communities than the virus itself, Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds says.

“Event organisers are struggling to cope with the lack of information and direction from the Government, making event planning virtually impossible.

“We’re seeing major local events being cancelled because organisers have no sense of how long level two will continue, with the information vacummn  people are living with playing havoc with community plans.

“More concerning, local fundraising events, which are often the lifeblood of local charities and school and sports clubs, are also falling by the wayside impacting on the ability of these groups to raise funds for the future.

“On top of that, Southland event organisers have told me that the bureaucracy around organising events, and scanning visitors in, is so complicated and labour-intensive that it’s virtually impossible to hold any large gatherings.

“Instead we are seeing events like Rocking with the Stars, the Winton Open Day, the Southland Truck parade and the Southland Charity Hospital’s fund-raising ball all being cancelled. The Christmas Races, Edendale Crank Up Day and the Southern Field Days also now hang in the balance - thousands of hours of work and potential revenue for local businesses and venue owners set to go down the drain while the Government sits on its hands.

“It’s having a detrimental effect on the Southland economy, negatively hitting local businesses and also impacting on people’s moods and their peace of mind – with the limbo that we’re living in wearing very thin.

“I wrote to the Prime Minister weeks ago asking for more clarity around level two in the South Island – the silence has been deafening, with the Government’s lack of communication around the Covid lockdown having a greater impact on local communities than the virus itself.”

Government plan for University students needed as year end approaches

October 20, 2021 Share

Tertiary students studying in Auckland and across the country face an uncertain future as the academic year draws to a close and the Government fails to provide a plan around travel during lockdown, National’s Tertiary Education spokesperson Penny Simmonds says.

“It’s just another example of this Government’s play it by ear attitude to education – and it’s a real slap in the face for tertiary students who’ve already faced huge disruption to their studies in the wake of the Delta lockdown.

“University and polytechnic students need certainty now, in the lead-up to their final exams. They need to have a clear plan from the Government on what’s likely to happen once the academic year draws to a close.

“November is traditionally the month where thousands of tertiary students move all over the country heading home from their studies for the summer break. But for Auckland students the Government has remained silent on what the future holds for them – either because they don’t know, or they’ve yet to even consider the options.

“Either way it’s going to affect lots of people. There are no clear plans on whether students will be able to cross boundaries, with an exemption, and return home, or whether those who have a double vaccination will be allowed to travel.

"For example will a student from Northland, studying at Lincoln, be able to drive through Auckland with an exemption, or will a double-vaccinated Southland student, studying at AUT, be allowed to return home after a negative Covid test.

“Many students will have accommodation arrangements that run out at the end of the year, while others simply won’t be able to afford to stay on in Auckland once their study is complete, but where will they go if the Government doesn’t have a plan?

“Students don't need this added level of uncertainty during stressful exam times and the Government needs to come up with a robust plan before we all end up in Covid chaos.”

Picnics and playdates will do nothing for Southland economy

October 05, 2021 Share

Picnics and playdates will do little to ease the anxiety of Southland business owners struggling under level two lockdown and with no clear plan from the Government in sight, Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds says.

“While the picnics and playdates that the Prime Minister touted yesterday might be nice for the kids, if Mum and Dad don’t have a job at the end of the day then there’s not much to celebrate.

“The Government needs to understand that it cannot remain as relaxed and confident anymore about the economy’s resilience if it’s not going to offer businesses a clear, forward-looking plan.

“More and more retail and hospitality businesses say they can’t go on pumping their own hard-earned personal savings into keeping their businesses afloat amid this kind of uncertainty.

“It’s particularly frustrating for businesses in a place like Southland, where there haven’t been any Covid cases and current Ministry of Health data shows that close to 50 percent of Invercargill's population have now had their second Covid vaccination.

“Local businesses really are doing it hard – I haven’t seen our city looking so quiet for a very long time – and because there’s no forward-looking plan several large events, which could have added thousands to our local economy, are currently hanging in the balance.

“We have been let down by the Government, who has continued to focus on Auckland, giving little support, or credit, to communities and businesses in the South.

“Now after all the sacrifices that have been made, the Government has dropped its elimination strategy leaving local people feeling even more disillusioned.

“We urgently need a plan from this Government on how our economy will recover. We also need contingencies so that we don’t have to face another lockdown, with these decisions crucial for the future well-being of Southland and the rest of the country.”

Immigration Delays Huge Challenge inSouthland - Southland Times Column

October 04, 2021 Share

Originally published as a column in The Southland Times

Immigration delays are one of the biggest challenges facing Southland at this time.

From the agriculture and manufacturing sectors, to health and aged residential care, our region is being held to ransom by the Government’s poor handling of immigration processing.

A Dairy NZ and Federated Farmers workforce survey, in March, showed 49 percent of Southland farms were short-staffed, or in need of additional people, and by far the biggest concern from farmers were the painfully slow immigration processing times, the lack of family reunification for visa holders and no pathway to residency. 

Federated Farmers says it is repeatedly hearing stories of skilled international dairy farm staff ready to head home, and effectively end their careers in this country, because they cannot live with the uncertainty of the immigration settings.

In contrast, the Australian Government is currently encouraging migrants to join their workforce, launching a Farm Working Visa this month, available to skilled and semi-skilled overseas workers in farming, fisheries, forestry and meat processing.

This new visa aims to quickly address worker shortages across the Tasman and it begs the question why our Government continues to sit on its hands.

The problems are not unique to farmers either, our health sector in Southland is also desperate to attract and retain skilled international doctors, nurses and support staff, as shortages in these areas escalate.

The Southern District Health Board currently has 433 positions to fill, with a report to the board’s Hospital Advisory Committee this week highlighting border closures and visa uncertainty as a significant challenge in addressing these vacancies.

I personally know of a nurse who has been working in Southland for some time, but is now returning home to India (check this with Penny) because she can’t bring her family here.

Imagine not seeing your two-year-old son for two years. I’ve had people in my office in tears about their situation and I just can’t understand why this Government would not support these skilled workers and encourage them to stay.

Immigration New Zealand stopped processing residency applications for skilled migrants at the start of the pandemic in 2020 and there are now 11553 applications in waiting. 

Alongside this there have been further immigration processing delays, including for visa variations, as immigration staff have moved to working from home under COVID-19 Level 4 settings.

This frozen residency pool is leaving thousands of people in immigration limbo - they can’t access Kiwisaver, or buy a house. They’re fed up and now they’re choosing to leave – it’s the last thing that a province like Southland needs at this time.

National has announced a policy that would address these issues. We would instruct Immigration NZ to clear the backlog of residency applications and give other skilled migrant workers a clearer path to residency.

We are also now calling on the Government to offer residence class visas on arrival to experienced specialist healthcare workers to attract them here.

These are simple changes which could make a significant difference - so why is the Government making us wait?

Southland Express column

September 27, 2021 Share

Originally published as a column in The Southland Express

I’m delighted to have been given the lead responsibility for Disability Services in National’s recent caucus reshuffle.

There are some urgent matters around disability support that should be addressed and I intend to work hard for change.
In particular, I want to advocate for an increase in respite care payments.

These payments aim to reimburse the costs of using a support person to care for a disabled person. This means their carer can take some time out for themselves and it’s hugely important for individuals and families.

However, respite care payments are just $76 a day. This is shockingly well below minimum wage and makes it very difficult for families of dependants with a disability to access respite care.

New individualised funding has made a big difference for many people with a disability, allowing them to access support that best suits their needs.

But there are still gaps which often have to be filled by family and more work needs to be done to improve this support.

Transport also continues to be a major cost and prohibitor for those with disabilities wanting to participate in work or social activities, and I would like to see improvements here too.

Apart from Disability Services I am also pleased to have been given the Associate Transport role, along with retaining Tertiary Education and Associate Agriculture.

These responsibilities give me a broad range of opportunities to advocate for the people of the South and to ensure local voices are heard.

Why are we still in Level two?

September 23, 2021 Share

Why are we still in Level two? That's the question Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds and her eight other South Island National Party colleagues are asking the Prime Minister.

“In a letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern the MPs have questioned the current South Island Alert Level status and asked the Prime Minister for the rationale behind the decision.

"We believe for the South Island to remain at Alert Level 2 will have a deep and irrevocable impact on South Islanders and inevitably force more businesses to close.

“I know that the continuation of Level 2 is placing a huge strain on many Southland businesses, with some reaching breaking point and at least three in Invercargill closing down.

“Fifteen thousand jobs across Southland claimed the wage subsidy during the August lockdown, according to the Ministry of Social Development, an indication of how widespread the pain in this area was.

“Southlanders tell me that they feel let down by the Government who has continued to focus on Auckland, giving little consideration to communities and businesses in the South who have been doing it hard.

“One city business, which is in the process of shutting its doors with three staff losing jobs, has blamed this latest lockdown for their demise.

“They are devastated to close their business, and upset for their staff, but just can’t continue to operate in the current climate in Southland.

“Another business owner, in the hospitality sector, said even with this week’s increase in dining numbers to 100 people were keeping their wallets shut because of the economic uncertainty that level two created.

“People want to know why the South Island continues to be restrained in this way – and that’s why my colleagues and I have asked the Prime Minister to release the rationale behind her decision.

“Until we are free of Level two – I believe very little will change for small businesses owners in Southland."

Covid-19 impacting Southland small businesses

September 13, 2021 Share

Retail card spending figures reflect the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on Southland businesses, Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds says, and she encourages people to support local businesses now more than ever.

“In August retail card spending in New Zealand fell 19.8 percent, as we went into lockdown in the second half of the month, according to Stats NZ.

“It’s no wonder, when you take these figures into account, that many businesses in Invercargill, and around our rural towns, are now finding times tough. 

“Even under level 2, local business owners tell me they’re struggling. For some it will be tough to come back from lockdown, while for others the only option has been to close down.

“We all want to retain the services of local cafes and retailers, and we all want our economy to thrive, so now more than ever buying local and shopping local is incredibly important.

"Support from the Government, in the form of its wage subsidy is also crucial, but I am currently hearing stories of terrible delays in payments which are also adding unnecessary stress.

“Not surprisingly consumables like groceries and alcohol saw a 9.3 percent increase in August, but spending in the hospitality sector fell by almost 30 percent, with apparel down a whopping 40.7 percent.

“These figures again reflect the huge revenue declines that many businesses will be facing, from the Invercargill Licensing Trust and small cafes, local restaurants and bars, to retailers like florists, gift shops and women’s fashion stores.

"Online shopping is tempting - but getting out and actually spending money in your community, when you can afford to, will make a huge difference to our local economy."

Disabled Population urgently needs a Covid plan

September 13, 2021 Share

The country’s disabled population urgently needs a Covid plan, with barriers to getting tested and vaccinated disadvantaging this community, National’s Disability Issues spokesperson Penny Simmonds says.

“Our disabled population cannot continue to be left out of the vaccination and testing programmes in this country.

“Almost one in four Kiwis identifies as living with a disability and yet there’s a massive gap in our vaccination and Covid-testing options.

“The disabled appear to be the forgotten New Zealanders of this pandemic.

“A lack of public transport to and from vaccination points, long periods waiting in cues and busy, over-stimulating environments just aren’t suitable for many disabled people.

“Barriers to getting our disabled population vaccinated and tested means we have a significant number of people in our communities, often with compromised health, in an incredibly vulnerable situation.

“Disability advocates have also told me that many isolation facilities are just not accessible to the disabled, and with carers not allowed in to provide people with support, I’m hearing that disabled people in the community are fearful of getting tested.

“Alternatives for vaccinations, such as priority queues to shorten wait times, and the provision of quiet spaces just haven't been implemented, despite requests from disability advocates.

“A mobile unit which can go into the homes of people who can't physically get to vaccination centres also needs to be established and saliva testing should be made available as soon as possible.

“Our disabled population cannot continue to be left out of the vaccination and testing roll-out – the risks are just too high.”

Board comments a nonsense in face of on-going inadequacies at hospital

September 07, 2021 Share

The inadequacies and inequality at Southland Hospital are not new and the Southern District Health Board must urgently remedy them, rather than just paying them lip-service, Invercargill MP Penny Simmonds says.

“The time for talk and hand-wringing is over, with comments this week about the lack of facilities at Southland Hospital, by both the board CE Chris Fleming and the chairman Pete Hodgeson, just a nonsense.

“Mr Fleming said he was stunned that a ‘previous hospital board’ had removed the anterooms from the emergency department before redevelopment work 13 years ago, while Mr Hodgeson questioned whether Southland people were ‘being treated fairly.’

“But I say these shortfalls are nothing new and have been plaguing our hospital for years, and I’m shocked that the board is only now acknowledging them.

“I have spent the past 12 months, working with a group of health professionals, trying to highlight the desperate lack of facilities at our hospital.

“Some local orthopaedic surgeons and GP’s have told me that the health and quality of life of their patients will deteriorate beyond repair before they get the surgery they need, because of operating theatre shortfalls.

“Now the board says orthopaedic referrals to Southland Hospital are being tightly monitored to manage untenable waiting lists, with 1579 patients waiting longer than recommended, including 230 patients needing orthopaedic surgery.

“Shockingly another 200 Southland children are also waiting for dental surgery because of a lack of theatre space.

“Our hospital has just 115 beds and 2.9 theatres per 100,000 people - that's nearly 60 percent fewer beds per 100,000 people, and 37 percent less theatre space, than neighbouring Otago.

“But these deficits are not new and it seems an utter nonsense that the Southern District Health Board is only now coming to terms with them, let alone doing anything about them.

"I call on the board to bring these issues to the attention of the Health Minister. Ultimately it's the Government's responsibility to properly resource our DHB's. Instead it's spending half a billion on a health  restructure that's unlikely to improve outcomes for people in this region."

Vaccination Access - Western Star column

September 06, 2021 Share

Originally published as a column in The Western Star

Older people from Western Southland, to Bluff have contacted me about delays in the Covid-19 vaccination programme.

Seniors tell me that they’re worried that they haven’t had their shots and they’re confused about what to do, with the latest threat of the Delta variant adding to their concern.  

There appears to be no plan around the way that the vaccination programme is being rolled out in Southland, with the SDHB admitting that they’re not sure of the numbers in each group needing vaccinations.

I’ve heard of Southlanders as young as 18, without any pre-existing medical conditions, being called up for their shots, while people in their 70s are still waiting.

The Covid-19 roll-out officially began around NZ on February 20. It’s disappointing that over five months later many vulnerable local people in Southland are still unprotected.

The vaccination of Group 3 people (those regarded as being at risk of getting very sick from Covid-19) started in early May.

It's concerning that those aged 55-59 are now eligible for their vaccinations, with this overlap likely to add to the confusion and further exacerbate the concern amongst unvaccinated older people.

Clearly getting the elderly vaccinated should be a priority. I urge anyone who has concerns to be proactive - call the vaccination hotline on 0800 28 29 26 and ask for an appointment.