Ensuring this country’s red meat exports have the necessary documentation to allow access into overseas markets is a complicated task on a good day.

Throw in the national lockdown and turmoil and uncertainty in all of New Zealand’s export markets in the wake of COVID-19, then it would have been easier to call it quits, go home and switch on Netflix. Especially when many paper-based documentation is still required to complete port entry requirements in many of NZ’s overseas markets.

Instead, a small team, employed by the New Zealand Meat Board, put in place the business continuity processes they had been developing over the past five years and kept the wheels of trade moving for both the red meat sector and the NZ economy.

Quota Team Leader Megan Gibson is part of this team and she says they had been closely watching the global situation unfold as COVID-19 impacted initially on markets in China and Korea and then into Europe and US.

There was, she says, a growing realization that this virus was going to affect us all.

While they already had an off-site server in place, it was the delivery of the paper-based outputs that was going to be the biggest challenge. But as they were quickly signed off by the Ministry of Primary Industries as an essential service, this relieved them of what potentially was a contingency nightmare.

“It meant we could go into the office and produce certificates, trying to do this in people’s houses would have been a nightmare,” says Megan.

It was a very busy time for the team as markets were continually shifting. As China closed down, exports were diverted into other markets in Europe and the US, and as these markets closed or slowed down China and other Asian markets were re-opening.

A roster system was put in place so while individuals would venture into the eerily-silent Wellington office to produce the certificates, others worked remotely from home.

“As a team working remotely, we operated really well, but it is different and it does take longer to do things. It just adds an extra layer of complexity.”

Megan says in the initial stages of the lockdown their concern was flexibility.

“Would off-shore regulators be satisfied with PDFs or temporary documentation if couriers were unable to deliver the original documents they typically require? Thankfully couriers worldwide have been able to maintain essential services.”

Throughout the lockdown the team were keeping a close eye on other issues affecting international trade, such as port congestion in the US and while this didn’t affect NZ directly, this could have had a flow-on effect for international shipping traffic.

Megan admits the first couple of weeks in lockdown were a bit crazy as they were busy adapting to alternative operating processes both for New Zealand and Brussels staff, but they had also been developing operating resilience for some time with back-up systems and the use of cloud-based technologies.

While they had already “tested” their ability to work away from the Wellington office, the lockdown in March was a live test and showed that the systems worked.

“I’ve been really pleased with how the team has been able to work and ensure the continuation of NZ’s export trade. It’s not ideal and it’s not how we want to work, but we can do it,” says Megan.

Coming out the other side, the next stage will be to do a stock-take of what worked well and what didn’t.

What undoubtedly worked well was that NZ was able to continue to export red meat and generate valuable income when the rest of the economy had shut-down. That came down to the farmers, transport operators, processors and the team at the New Zealand Meat Board who made it all happen.

May 2020

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