Questions remain over Govt’s coronavirus response

The Government is ramping up its fiscal planning for the coronavirus outbreak - but there are plenty of unknowns, both in its response and the pandemic as a whole. 

If you tuned in to the Prime Minister’s latest post-Cabinet press conference in the hopes of being reassured about the Government’s coronavirus response, you may have been left with mixed emotions.

On the one hand, Jacinda Ardern’s announcement of greater quarantine powers, to cover not just people but ships and planes, fits with what has largely been regarded as a sound public health approach within New Zealand to the potential pandemic.

But on the less tangible yet also important issue of the financial fallout, there were nearly as many questions as answers.

Speaking alongside Ardern, Finance Minister Grant Robertson announced a “business continuity package” to support the economy, including a targeted wage subsidy scheme along with training and redeployment options.

But there was little detail on offer. “Policy options” around tax and household support were still being sketched out by officials, Robertson said, while the scale and scope of the package was also a work in progress.

Work was also under way on separate, longer-term measures that could be required - but again there was little Robertson could, or would, say.

Of course, the coronavirus threat is a challenge quite different from any faced by recent governments, and it is understandable that the Government would want to carefully measure its response.

But it was a surprise not to have greater specificity about what would be done, given the impact of coronavirus is well and truly being felt already among a number of New Zealand businesses.

The decision to take a targeted approach to support for employers and employees also raises some obvious questions.

How will the Government ensure it captures all the industries and businesses being affected by the outbreak, and would it be easier (if more expensive) to develop some universal stimulus initiatives?

National leader Simon Bridges and his MPs have taken a hard line on the Government's coronavirus response, but risk being seen to place politicking over the national interest. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

National has framed the Government’s response as both inadequate and incompetent, touting its own economic record in dealing with crises like the GFC and the Canterbury earthquakes while in power.

That accords with Simon Bridges’ long-established plan to fight the election on hip-pocket issues such as the cost of living and support for SMEs.

But the first of a five-part economic plan released by National on Monday, a regulation reduction package including a reheated announcement from last August of plans to light a “bonfire of regulations”, was both underwhelming and had little real connection to any coronavirus response (despite Bridges seeking to tie the two together).

Of course, National is keeping its powder dry, with more significant policy announcements on issues like tax to be announced closer to the election, when the public is more politically engaged and less consumed by the threat of a pandemic.

But there is a distinct risk the party is accused - as it already has been - of putting politicking above bipartisanship and the national interest.

Ardern has already made positive politics a theme of Labour’s 2020 campaign, and will readily jump on any opportunity to be seen to take the higher road.

Of course, there is and should be scope to highlight any inadequacies in the official response. But Bridges and his team need to be careful not to fall into the classic trap of barking at every passing car, and instead measure their reaction against the perceived shortcoming.

Winston Peters has already suggested “unsustainable” immigration levels will be a critical issue for New Zealand First at this year’s election; whether and how coronavirus plays into that could be crucial in determining the tone of the campaign.

Politics cannot be entirely stripped from the matter, sadly, and the outbreak could also revive a contentious topic of debate during the 2017 campaign - the impact of rising migration levels on the country’s vital infrastructure.

In July 2017, Labour’s immigration spokesman Iain Lees-Galloway said the party would “take a breather on immigration”, citing the strain being placed on public services.

Despite that tough talk, there has been little meaningful change to net migration levels, and a health system already bursting at the seams from population demands could hit breaking point with an influx of coronavirus patients and the flow-on effects, such as healthcare workers forced into isolation.

Of course, the fault for failing to keep up with demand lies with governments and the planning failures, rather than the migrants who were welcomed in with open arms.

But there has already been a regrettably racist response in some quarters to the coronavirus outbreak, while the political climate (take Shane Jones’ offensive remarks about the Indian community) suggests a good faith response may not be forthcoming from all parties.

Jones’ leader Winston Peters has already suggested “unsustainable” immigration levels will be a critical issue for New Zealand. First at this year’s election; whether and how coronavirus plays into that could be crucial in determining the tone of the campaign.

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