Page updated: 5 January 2021
The longer-term impacts of COVID-19 on the SAR sector remain to be seen. Above all, it appears that while the New Zealand government has been able to secure a certain amount of domestic stability, things will likely remain uncertain on the global stage for at least the rest of 2021 and possibly longer.
The SAR Secretariat has highlighted a few possible longer-term impacts of COVID-19 on the SAR sector, which are worth monitoring over time.
In the longer term, it is predicted that COVID-19 will not significantly impact on demand for search and rescue services. However, the composition and source of that demand is likely to be different from that before COVID-19 happened.
It will take a long time for international tourist numbers and recreational activity to return to pre-COVID levels.
While New Zealanders are likely to fill many of the gaps of international tourists, overall tourist numbers will likely remain low for several years to come. This could be mitigated to some extent by bi-lateral arrangements between New Zealand and certain Pacific Islands or with Australia.
Furthermore, recreational support businesses will be those that have managed to adapt and which are able to operate effectively in a domestic-driven environment, or those that already operate seasonally.
On balance, then, demand is unlikely to be higher than pre-COVID levels. However, to the extent that the outdoor recreation industry recovers, it might eventually get closer.
It will take some time to understand how demand for search and rescue changes over the longer-term in response to COVID-19. It is likely that the SAR sector will need to explicitly adapt to ensure that supply matches demand.
In the longer term, we should see the global situation stabilise, particularly as the many COVID-19 vaccination programmes underway begin to slow the spread of the virus. We should also see the precautions needed to manage COVID-19 risks being formalised and considered simply part of the new 'global normal'. This may mean, for example, ensuring costs of PPE and training for higher COVID-19 risk environments (e.g. for Medivac operations outside NZ) are factored into longer-term capacity planning and forecasts
However, we are unlikely to the world simply 'get back to what it was' for many years to come, if ever.
In this context, rather than relying on outdated models and understandings of demand for search and rescue, it will be necessary for the SAR sector to continually update its understanding of how demand is changing, and how supply and capability needs to change to match it. In particular, pre-existing SAR response capabilities may not align with new recreational locations, activities and behaviours. This may mean that additional training is required too.
The impact of COVID-19 on SAR sector capacity and capability continues to depend on New Zealand's and, to some extent, global economic fortunes in the medium to longer term. At present, New Zealand is among only a handful of countries enjoying V-shaped economic recovery. If this recovery falters, we could see limited domestic financial resources available for the SAR sector reducing or limiting the ability to maintain existing levels of operational capacity in the longer-term.
In the longer term, the impacts of COVID-19 on SAR sector funding and training remain very uncertain. A lot hinges on how well the global and domestic recovery goes.
As discussed in the section on 'medium term' funding impacts, predicting precise flow-on impacts from COVID-19 on SAR sector funding and training is a highly speculative endeavour.
If there is a downturn in the NZ economy, and this downward pressure ultimately flows through to the SAR sector, it would be most likely to impact on the following sources of funding: