New Zealand Parliament Pāremata Aotearoa

2. Question No. 2—Prime Minister

Sitting date: 3 Jun 2020

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Oral Questions — Questions to Ministers

Question No. 2—Prime Minister

2. TODD MULLER (Leader of the Opposition) to the Prime Minister: Why isn't New Zealand already in alert level 1?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN (Prime Minister): While ongoing zero-case days have given us confidence to move forward consideration of a move to alert level 1 to 8 June, earlier than that would not have given sufficient confidence that transmission was not occurring that has not yet been detected. The incubation period of the virus is up to 14 days; it's only been 13 days since bars reopened and five days since gathering sizes were lifted to 100. We also have to bear in mind that it is worse for our economy if we move backwards and forwards between alert levels rather than making the right decision the first time. It is also important to note that we began our staggered approach to alert level 2 less than three weeks ago, and New Zealand already has some of the most liberal restrictions in the world because of the effectiveness of our strategy to date. We need to ensure that as a team of 5 million we do not lose the gains we've made to date and go backwards.

Todd Muller: Why is she so reticent to move to alert level 1, when Dr Ashley Bloomfield has said there is—and I quote—"no evidence of community transmission in New Zealand"?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: I'm acting on the advice of director-general Dr Ashley Bloomfield. He is the one giving us the guidance to remain where we are. He has expressed comfort with us making that consideration on 8 June, but that is not an accurate reflection of his views.

Todd Muller: Is it correct that—and I quote—"from a public health perspective alert level 1 means there has been a period of more than 28 days with no new cases of COVID-19 caused by community transmission and there is an extremely low public health risk from the virus", as is says in the paper I have here in her name titled COVID-19 Alert Level 1 Controls, which I understand was discussed at Cabinet yesterday?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: The member knows that we have made fully and widely available the settings of alert levels 1, 2, 3, and 4, and in the criteria for decision making it does say, "trends in the transmission of the virus, with the threshold varying by alert level, including the director-general's confidence in the data." So, yes, we've included a period where we haven't had cases—keeping in mind we're only up to 12 days presently—but also the number of days where we haven't had a case from community transmission, which was roughly about a month ago now. But that is not the only criteria. The director-general has to be confident in the data. We know there is asymptomatic transmission. We know there is a long tail. I would rather move once, do it right, and not continue to risk our economy.

Todd Muller: When was New Zealand's last case of community transmission?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: As I just said, it was at the beginning of May. However, that was not the last case that we had, which was, from memory, 12 days ago. I have to say I am alarmed at the suggestion from the member that, even with some of the loosest restrictions in the world, the member would still be willing to act against the advice of the Director-General of Health, open up before he has advised that we do so, and put at risk the huge effort and sacrifice of New Zealanders. I would rather do it once and do it right.

Todd Muller: Why did you say that it was—

SPEAKER: Order! Order! "She", thank you.

Todd Muller: To the Prime Minister: how can you match that answer with the fact that on 20 May, you said—and I quote—"the last case of community transmission where the source was unknown was early April."? That means we've had now three full cycles of transmission with no community transmission cases in New Zealand—60 days since—

SPEAKER: Order! Order! Order!

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: We had a case that was linked to overseas travel but the overseas travel was outside the period of infection. So the view was that it could either have been community transmission or overseas travel. Again, the member forgets that that is but one of many criteria that we take into consideration, and we must listen to the advice not only of the scientists and epidemiologists but also the Director-General of Health. If the member thinks he knows more than all of them combined, I congratulate him, but I would rather listen to the advice, get it right, and not risk our economy.

Hon Chris Hipkins: Has the Prime Minister been advised that as recently as yesterday, Australian states were reporting new cases of community transmission, and will the Government take that into consideration when considering the Opposition's urging to reopen the border with Australia with urgency?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Yes. We of course are mindful of the impacts of every restriction on our economy, on our businesses, but I equally will not jeopardise the gains and sacrifices made by those businesses by either opening us before we're ready or moving alert levels before we're ready. I reflect on the comments made by a small-business owner that they would rather live with the restrictions now than risk going back later on.

Todd Muller: Prime Minister, isn't it time for a captain's call on level 1 so that a team of 5 million New Zealanders can get back to rebuilding this country and recovering their jobs?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: I have proudly made captain's calls all the way through, and it is one of the reasons that, alongside our team of 5 million, we are the envy of the world in terms of our position right now. I stand by every call I've made and that's why we are waiting until 8 June.

Hon Chris Hipkins: Supplementary question, Mr Speaker.

SPEAKER: I can't tell if it's a point of order or a question, because of the yelling that is going on. I can't quite work out the reason for it today, but there seems to have been something in the water at lunchtime on my left, and I would like the volume to be turned down, and I would like the provocation to be turned off by the people who are not called to answer questions.

Hon Chris Hipkins: Will she accept the urging from the Leader of the Opposition to make a captain's call to reopen the border with China with urgency?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: No. And I do reflect on the fact that yesterday the member did say that he didn't have all of the information in front of him to make a decision around moving to alert level 1, and I would just reflect on that. I actually support the position the member took at that time. There are a number of things that have to be considered. Cabinet makes those decisions alongside the advice of the director-general and the best scientific advice we have. It has to be about moving as quickly as we can but as safely as we can.

Todd Muller: Why is it that your vice-captain doesn't actually have—

SPEAKER: Order! Order! No, look, I warned the member once and he sort of half corrected it, he did it again, and he's done it wrong again. My vice-captain is over there. Ask the question again.

Todd Muller: To the Prime Minister—

Rt Hon Winston Peters: Sir, to you!

SPEAKER: Oh, for goodness' sake! I heard a very wise kaumātua on the radio this morning, talking about breaches of rules and the consequences of them. The member will stand, withdraw and apologise.

Rt Hon Winston Peters: I withdraw and apologise.

Todd Muller: Why wait till midnight Wednesday, when the whole country needs us to be in level 1 today?

Rt Hon JACINDA ARDERN: Because the whole country needs us to not go backwards. The whole country needs us to move once and to do it right, and the whole country wants to move with confidence. The member does a disservice when he explains that the decision-making process is as simplistic as he describes—it is not. We factor in a range of issues, including economic impact, including compliance, including transmission, and our unknowns. And I stand by every decision we have made to date.

Hon Gerry Brownlee: Well done, captain!

SPEAKER: Mr Brownlee, I think people will describe people correctly in the House from now on. We're not going to have a big argument about it now.