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Source: New Zealand Parliament – Hansard

TUESDAY, 28 APRIL 2020

The Speaker took the Chair at 2 p.m.

Karakia.

MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS

COVID-19—Move to Alert Level 3 and State of National Emergency

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN (Prime Minister): I wish to make a ministerial statement on the New Zealand COVID-19 response and record the ongoing extension of the state of national emergency until Wednesday, 6 May 2020.

Today is day one of COVID-19 alert level 3. We move down one alert level today thanks to the efforts of roughly 5 million New Zealanders who’ve stayed at home to break the transmission of the virus and to save lives. The success of our four-week lockdown—we’ve got ourselves to a position of no current widespread and undetected community transmission in New Zealand—is attributable to nothing less than the collective action of New Zealanders determined to eliminate a virus that threatened both lives and also livelihoods. What greater example of a nation is there than one which unites in the defence of our most vulnerable and, ultimately, in defence of our way of life.

Decisive action, going hard and going early, helped us stamp out the worst of the virus. Yes, we had the insight, those vital extra weeks, to look at the agonising spread and loss of life around the world, and we devised a plan for our country and for our people. We executed that plan together, and we must continue to execute that plan. Modelling provided publicly on the eve of the lockdown suggested New Zealand was on a similar trajectory to the likes of those places overseas who have seen the virus escalate, and that our cases could have grown to more than 10,000 without the actions we’ve taken together—and, of course, that would cause countless deaths. Today, we have had fewer than 1,500, cases, and more than 1,200 people have recovered.

Within 25 days of our first case, we closed our borders to all but New Zealanders. Germany took 49 days; Spain, 52; Australia, 55; Singapore, 61. Our lockdown was in place from day 31, with just over 200 cases. Our first economic package was in place 18 days after the first case; most other countries took more than 40 days. Ours was 6 percent of GDP, bigger than the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, China, Korea, and Japan at the time, and unlike others, it injected cash flow into businesses immediately, with more than $10 billion paid out to more than 1.6 million New Zealanders in the form of a wage subsidy. The Government has initially invested $23 billion into our COVID-19 response to keep our people safe and our economy ready to be revitalised in the next stage of our response.

New Zealanders fully committed to level 4, with Google tracking capturing an overall reduction in the movement to places of retail and recreation of 91 percent during the lockdown. Even visits to the supermarket and pharmacy, which were essential services and open at level 4, dropped by half. Yes, it’s been the most restrictive environment New Zealand has experienced in modern history, but late last week we saw figures that showed, following our decision to move to level 3, that there was huge support from New Zealanders for the plan that we have collectively executed.

I do want to thank the Opposition, too, for their support of our decision to move to level 4 and for their role in the Epidemic Response Committee. The stripes of the political divide have rightly paled to allow for a collective response to get our country through a global pandemic, the kind of which comes but once in a century.

We’ve done life differently for a while: Anzac Day; lockdown birthdays; many, many home-cooked meals and walks around the block. We have a new national lexicon: bubbles, Zoom, staying home and saving lives.

As the Government, we moved to provide guidance on essential businesses, and as we prepared for our move to level 3, we made arrangements for safe, contactless retail and takeaway, for hunting, for moving day, for sport, and throughout the past weeks we’ve not wavered in making sure food supplies, accommodation, and mental health support got to those who needed it most. We used section 70 of the Health Act, issued epidemic notices, and put New Zealand under a state of national emergency, which has led to car parks requisitioned for testing clinics, thousands of food parcels distributed, and roofs put over people’s heads. Police have prosecuted more than 500 people who have breached the CDEM or health Acts, while countless New Zealanders have joined the call for us all to stick to the plan and stick to the rules.

Children have been learning at home, and we’ve moved to connect 80,000 households without internet or devices. To date, we’ve delivered 2,200 computer devices, with 9,500 also sent by schools from their own stocks; 18,000 Wi-Fi routers to secure internet connections; 131,000 hard packs have been delivered around the country; and 1.5 million have tuned into educational TV channels and reconnected with Suzy Cato.

We’ve brought 1,480 New Zealanders home from around the world on repatriation flights once all other options were exhausted, and we housed those who had recently returned in mandatory isolation at Government-approved hotels if they were without symptoms and in quarantine if they were symptomatic. I do want to acknowledge the huge work undertaken by the Deputy Prime Minister to bring those New Zealanders home.

Our transmission rate is at 0.4. It means our testing and contact tracing has surged into a complementary system that is both rapid and comprehensive and can see us through level 3 and beyond. We can now test up to 8,500 people a day and, if needed, have the capacity to make up to 10,000 calls a day if needs be. We’ve done 1,430 community surveillance tests, all negative. Experts tell us that being able to contact trace at the capacity that we are now is providing very strong protection for our population. It means we hold our border controls and quarantine rules rigidly in place, because we know they are our best defence against resurgence of the virus here, and we know that our best public health response is also our best economic response.

All of this has not been without pain. Loved ones have been lost to the virus and other causes, and grief has been compounded by limitations on the comfort that can be provided; weddings have been put on hold; 335,457 people are on the main benefit, which is 11.2 percent of the working-age population. Last week, nearly 7,000 more people came on to jobseeker support, bringing the total to 174,630, which is 5.8 percent of the working-age population, while more than 1.6 million New Zealanders are now on a wage subsidy provided by the Government.

But today we begin to see activity return. We push forward to restart our economy. We are a country of half a million businesses and sole traders and 2.6 million workers. First off the block today, 400,000 more people return to work, joining 750,000 essential workers who kept working through level 4. Activity under level 4 was assumed to be down about 40 percent, which now lifts to being down about 25 percent under level 3—or, put another way, we see the economy lifting from 60 to 70 percent of usual capacity. Forestry restarts—log harvesting, sales, wood processing, planting, and spraying; construction restarts—major roading and rail projects, manufacturing, 60 Provincial Growth Fund projects representing more than $400 million.

Economic analysis from Treasury shows that the very worst thing for the economy would be the uncertainty of those sectors yo-yoing between levels. We are doing what we can to do it once and to do it right. Their scenarios also show that a week longer in level 4, which we’ve executed, was better than returning to level 4 in the future for two or more weeks if all our hard work went to waste and we left too early. With further Government investment, the scenarios show we can keep unemployment lower than it would have been. There is a path to keeping it below 10 percent with the right decision-making. That requires a forward-looking Government focused on making sure that the recovery supports workers and business at the same time.

So as the Minister of Finance has set out, our economic recovery comes in three waves: (1) fighting and cushioning the impact of the virus, which we’ve been doing, (2) recovery and kickstarting the economy, which we begin today, (3) we reset and rebuild into the future. We retrain people. We work in partnership with sectors to find new ways of doing business. Along the way, we engage with the business community to ensure a rapid recovery. We are in a strong economic position going into this, with net debt below 20 percent, compared to between 50 and 80 percent in comparable countries around the world, and we will be strong coming out. Charting a course to recovery relies on the foundations we have established to cushion the blow and keep workers connected to their jobs, and the actions that we took immediately.

But now is the time to lock in the hard-won gains and ensure the only thing that bounces back are jobs and our people, not COVID-19. We can all be heartened by low case numbers, but this is a persistent disease. Starting up the oven of the economy again is work that must run in tandem with our health response, so community testing continues, border restrictions remain. We must be vigilant. As my Chief Science Advisor Juliet Gerrard told me, “It’s getting harder and harder to find the needles in the haystack, so we really need everyone to help us find the last causes so we can move to level 2 and avoid any second wave of the virus.” So I conclude with this: I ask Kiwis to keep doing what you’re doing. Stay home if you’re sick, get tested quickly, work and learn from home if you can, stay in your bubbles, stay in your region, and most importantly, stay strong, be kind. We are going to be OK.

MIL OSI