24 Mar 2022

Parties critical of plan to lower Covid-19 restrictions

11:34 am on 24 March 2022

National would have gone further in removing Covid-19 restrictions but backs the government. The Greens fear for the most vulnerable, and ACT fears for the economy.

Christopher Luxon

Christopher Luxon Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern this morning unveiled the government's promised readjustment of Covid-19 restrictions, with moves to end scanning and vaccine pass requirements, remove some mandates, and ease some gathering limits.

Hospitality businesses said the changes - which increase for indoor venues to 200 in red and with no limit in orange - do not go far enough. They also urged an earlier move away from the red setting, with consideration of that put off until 4 April.

During her announcement, Ardern reflected on the two years of the pandemic, saying things had changed with the arrival of vaccines, antiviral medicines, and an improved understanding of Covid-19.

New Zealand is also expected to move past its peak caseload in this wave of Omicron, with pressure on the health system and workforces expected to subside to a lower - but still present - level in the coming weeks.

Ardern warned the virus would not simply disappear, with new variants likely, and some of the systems and settings now removed could make a comeback should they be required.

National: 'We need to get back to a life of normalcy'

National leader Christopher Luxon said the party was supportive of the removal of restrictions, but did not see the point of retaining the traffic light system.

"The government finally seeing reason and actually acknowledging the reality of Omicron and removing vaccine passes and vaccine mandates, we're supportive of that.

"It's difficult to understand the justification for why the traffic light system remains. Our view is that some simple clean instructions around masking, around maybe crowd limits and those sorts of things we can manage that with simpler set of rules rather than a confusing traffic light system."

National would have removed the 200-person limit for hospitality entirely, he said, but the removal of outdoor crowd limits would help bring back tourists.

"Hospitality [and] tourism are the two industries that have been structurally challenged the most, anything that gets them doing business as quickly as possible we're supportive of ... we didn't see the need for a limit there, but the bottom line is the government's put that in place, we've just got to get going.

"That's what this is all about, we now need to turn the page, we're getting back to normal and we're thinking about where the future of the country's going."

Luxon said the government had continued in a 2020 mindset in 2022, and should be flexible enough to be able to go up and down with restrictions and measures as needed.

"Rather than getting locked into one position and holding that position forever, it's no different from how people run businesses in terms of the risks that they face and the actions that they take, you float it up and down based on the risk you have."

New Zealand needed to get back to a life of normalcy, he said.

Greens: 'We don't have a choice ... we are no longer safe'

Green Party Spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman however said the moves for the most vulnerable would mean a shift away from normality, and towards the lockdowns that had been left behind.

No caption

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman (File photo). Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"For a mum who has survived breast cancer, chemotherapy would have made her immunocompromised so she has to decide whether to send her kids to school where there's no teacher vaccine mandates and then put herself and her life at risk having survived cancer.

"A multigenerational family household with elderly grandparents living with them, they have to make that decision - and that means do you go to work, do you send your kids to school? If you're the parents of a newborn do you still go into a cafe?

"Obviously the risk is never zero, but it is much harder for vaccinated people to get sick or pass that on and the sickness is going to be different ... especially with the booster and so our community would've been far safer if the government's focus was on the booster drive."

Ghahraman herself has multiple sclerosis and is immunocompromised, and said the vaccine mandates and passes strategies had been about inclusion.

"It meant that we could leave, we could leave the house, we could go to work, we could go to school, so it was about inclusion. And now we are in a position where we have to decide whether we want to go out into those spaces at quite a high risk which feels exclusionary. And we don't have a choice, it isn't about choosing to take the vaccine or not. We are vaccinated - those of us who can be - but we are no longer safe in those public spaces."

She rejected the idea the government had simply bowed to political pressure, but said if the government was moving away from those measures and relying on masks as a defence, it should at least ensure availability and accessibility of high-quality masks for everyone.

ACT: 'Time to move on and dump restrictions'

ACT leader David Seymour predicted New Zealand would be in recession in the first two quarters of the year, and characterised the government's decisions as an attempt to save face.

"Our economy is headed for recession and the prime minister just keeps fiddling. What we needed today was a sea change - it's time to move on and dump restrictions that don't make sense - instead the restrictions are being strung out in a political theatre of the absurd, apparently to save face for our prime minister," he said.

David Seymour

ACT leader David Seymour. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"We need some actual action but the prime minister is unable to break from the past. That's why we got the history lesson and that's why out of date policies remain for another week or two when they should have been gone last month."

He said scanning QR codes did not make sense a month ago and he was no longer doing it; that there was no evidence restricting hospitality venues to 200 people would make any difference; and vaccination requirements should be left entirely up to individual organisations.

"What I'm hearing from people who have a nightlife is that not being able to go table to table and meet and carouse with people is killing nightlife, it's killing hospitality. What we want is to get our way of life back like, I don't know, Sydney for example.

"It's the mood and the vibe of the thing ... that is actually killing a lot of New Zealand's economy right now. We need to see people back out on the streets confident whereas what we've had is a continuation of the fear factory, and that is having real economic consequences."

Te Pāti Māori: 'A lot of unanswered concerns'

Māori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer said in part it was the bureaucracy simply catching up with the reality that most of Aotearoa had already moved to, but she disagreed that the move was solely driven by health concerns.

"Sadly I agree with a lot of our Māori leaders, Ken Mair has said that this is about political expediency, economics and falling in the polls.

No caption

Debbie Ngarewa-Packer Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"We know that for every 10 RATs used only one is registered. So the numbers are skewed and the numbers that the government is using for their excuse for now announcing it, it appears slightly disingenuous."

There were a lot of unanswered concerns about protections and ongoing support for the most vulnerable, she said, and the Ministry of Health and its leader Dr Ashley Bloomfield's approach had ignored Māori concerns throughout the pandemic.

"It's time now for the government and certainly the Ministry of Health to admit it's failed, to get out of the way and to put as much emphasis on the Māori Health Authority as possible.

"Because we have seen, I guess the upside to all of this ... a battalion of the Māori hauora and the Māori providers that is just exemplary and I'm really optimistic about being able to see that being given more life and communities take more control of themselves."

Tikanga and rāhui meant Māori were among the most self-regulated people in the country, she said, and the approach could have moved much earlier to allowing Māori to handle their own response.

"What the government's gone and done is defaulted to what our policy stance has been all the time ... the one-stop-shop approach has always been criticised by Te Pāti Māori."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs