20 Apr 2020

Finance Minister answers Covid-19 lockdown change questions

From Checkpoint, 5:35 pm on 20 April 2020

At 11.59pm on Monday April 27 New Zealand will move to lockdown alert level 3, five days and a holiday weekend longer than first anticipated.

But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says our "team of five million" has broken the chain of transmission for Covid-19, and we have stopped a wave of devastation.

Businesses have been given the allowance to return to their premises this week and get ready to get actually back to business.

New Zealand will stay at alert level 3 for two weeks before the government reviews the decision.

"We assessed a range of options, we assessed carrying level on for a couple more weeks, we also assessed the option of lifting immediately on this week and we fell for what we thought was the right balanced decision," Finance Minister Grant Robertson told Checkpoint

"That gave us the ability to lock in the gains we've made... but also allow us to do a little more work to make sure we're confident in our systems, also allowing the education system and businesses to prepare as well."

The extension of level 4 lockdown until the end of April 27 was recommended to Cabinet by Ministry of Health Director-General Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Other experts had been recommending an extension of two weeks before moving to level 3. 

Robertson said a range of modelling from different experts was taken into account. "Also looking at the way we've bucked the trend in many ways of some of that earlier modelling because we've kept level 4 at such a tight extent," he said. 

"I think it's important to remember level 3 is still a very restrictive level. What it is doing is allowing some more economic activity, but as the Prime Minister said this afternoon in terms of social contact it is very much the same.

"We still want people to work from home if that is possible for them, and children to learn from home if that is possible.

"We still want people to keep their physical distance, and limit their activities recreationally to regionally and to low risk.

"It's not like we're suddenly moving to some very loose regime."

Robertson said from what he has soon, New Zealanders have been supportive of the restrictions to stop the spread of the virus. 

"It's been an extraordinary commitment by New Zealanders... I've got trust in New Zealanders that we'll keep doing that." 

Businesses that can reopen safely under level 3 can access their sites this week to prepare for work after April 27. Does that apply to management or staff? Can they use public transport? 

"It's focused on employers in the first instance, it's not an invitation to start trading... It might be somebody who needs to come in and open up so stock can be delivered so they can trade next week. It might be in a manufacturing plant to make sure someone comes in, cleans it up, does any urgent maintenance, makes sure appropriate physical distancing procedures are put in place." Robertson told Checkpoint

"Yes public transport is available to be used in most major cities now. But we're not asking large numbers of people to do this. Merely who is required to have a business ready to trade on Tuesday."

If you're in the group of vulnerable workers or over 70, at what level should they return to work? 

"Anybody considered vulnerable or considered immuno-compromised, we don't want them coming into work, and there is an essential worker leave scheme that gives some good criteria around that. We'll have a bit more to say about how that will apply in level 3 and level 2 over the coming days. 

"But the same advice applies. If you're sick, stay home and if you are in that vulnerable category, we really do want people as much as they possibly can to stay home," Robertson said. 

Some are confused about bubbles being enlarged. Can we spend time with daughter, grandchildren?

"It's basically focused around perhaps somebody that has been on their own who might bring someone else or join with somebody else in an exclusive bubble, or where there's a caregiver involved who needs to come and support, or a de facto partner or someone who helps with childcare. 

"So no, it's not an invitation just to extend your bubble out to two or three people who you're missing at the moment," Robertson said. 

"We're all missing people at the moment, we want this to be a limited extension to support people to have some social contact, to have the support they need in their households." 

Are Air New Zealand staff still flying internationally still exempt from 14-day quarantine? 

"That is my understanding, yes. That exemption was granted at the very beginning. It allows our flights to move people and goods around. Of course there are very, very few international flights now," Robertson said. 

Is random testing of essential workers for community transmission under consideration? 

"It's already underway," Robertson said. "The community transmission testing that was done was in the carpark of a supermarket. That was not an accident, that was because we wanted the opportunity for those essential workers in the supermarket to be tested on their way to shifts." 

Will international parcels be delivered under level 3 and what about post offices? 

"I don't imagine you'll see a lot of opening of post offices, but I'll have to check. I know certainly when it comes to parcels, freight coming in, there has been some coming in from offshore and I'm sure we'll see more." 

Robertson said online shopping for New Zealand shops will be opened up, "and obviously I'd be encouraging New Zealanders to be ordering their online shopping from New Zealand-based sites as much as possible."

Businesses returning to work on a scaled-down level, are they still eligible for the wage subsidy? 

"They will have already applied in many cases. Yes, as long as their turnover is down by 30 percent. The really important point about that though is if someone is returning to work, they must be paid for the hours they work. 

"A lot of businesses who've been in complete lockdown have been paying the wage subsidy and not much more. People should be paid for the hours that they work." 

If Covid-19 is eliminated in New Zealand, how is the government going to take advantage of this unique, powerful competitive advantage we will have? 

"That's one of the issues we've been thinking about," Robertson said. "We will continue to be an exporting nation. It will be some time before we open those borders up because it's such an important part of having got us to where we've got to, but we're certainly looking to build on our natural advantages, and we will continue to be out there in the world making sure everybody understands what a great job New Zealanders have done and what a great country we are, and all the exports that we have to offer." 

Will wage subsidies be bumped up in line with some overseas countries? 

"We set that up as a 12-week lump sum payment and I'm really pleased about that," Robertson said. 

"We've continued to tweak it, we've continued to build in other support for businesses and households, and we're still working on future ideas in that regard."