New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has responded forcefully after copping criticism of her government’s coronavirus border policies from both sides.
The country’s Opposition leader Todd Muller says keeping its current border restrictions in place over the long term is “simply untenable” and will leave New Zealand “on its knees”.
“The New Zealand strategy cannot be that we stay locked up until everybody else gets to zero or we have a vaccine. This country would be on its knees if that was the case,” Mr Muller said during a speech to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce yesterday.
“Just because (the virus) is present in a country shouldn’t mean that nobody from that country has the capacity to visit this country.
“We’ve got to be able to imagine a different engagement with the world than that.”
Meanwhile, some parts of the New Zealand media, foremost among them Newshub host Duncan Garner, actually want restrictions tightened.
“Sixty-four thousand people. Two stadiums, chocka. Picture it. Jam-packed. That’s the number of New Zealanders that have returned to the country since lockdown,” Garner told his viewers and listeners on The AM Show yesterday morning.
“The numbers in quarantine just keep rising as Kiwis meander and dawdle home, some 90 days after we went into lockdown, and even longer since we were warned it was time to come home.
“I think those that are still returning are taking the mickey and putting all our sacrifices at risk. New Zealanders have had plenty of time to get their backsides home if that was their intention.
“We have been more than accommodating and generous. I believe now is the time to totally shut the border to everyone, returning Kiwis included.”
Somewhere in the middle is Ms Ardern.
New Zealand has imposed one of the world’s strictest responses to the pandemic. It shut down flights from virus hot spots sooner than many other countries, and did not hesitate to go into full lockdown.
While citizens and permanent residents are still allowed to return to New Zealand, every traveller is required to spend two weeks in quarantine, and – last week’s embarrassing blunder notwithstanding – must test negative to the virus before they’re let out.
At a media conference this afternoon, Ms Ardern addressed the increasingly loud criticism of her government’s stance.
“I’ve seen today, and across the past week, calls for our borders to be opened to the world. A world where the virus is escalating, not slowing, and not even peaking in some countries yet,” Ms Ardern said.
“Where cases exceed 10 million globally, and deaths, half a million. Where countries are extending and returning to lockdown.”
At the same time, she said, New Zealand had been able to enjoy the benefits of easing its own restrictions.
“These are hard won gains, and we have, as a government, no intention of squandering them,” said the Prime Minister.
“The idea that we should open our border in this environment has a price. And that price could be a second wave of COVID-19 in our country. At worst. At best, added restrictions for the rest of us.
“Yes, we want to open our borders as soon as it is safe to do so, and we have been in the enviable position of investigating an undertaking with Australia and in the Pacific. Where there are safe opportunities, we will pursue them.
“But first and foremost, we are trying to preserve a COVID-free position while getting our economy moving.
“There is a time in the future when we’ll be opening our borders, but to suggest that time is now when the virus is getting worse is, frankly, dangerous.”
A reporter asked whether Ms Ardern thought calls to open the border were “irresponsible”.
“I do think it is dangerous,” she repeated.
“This pandemic, globally, is growing. The reason New Zealanders have the freedom we have and that we’ve been able to domestically open up our economy, has been because we have kept our borders so tight.”
One of Mr Muller’s chief complaints is that Ms Ardern’s government has not consulted enough with the opposition, or included it in briefings.
Asked about that, the Prime Minister argued it was not a “fair” criticism, as she had been “transparent” in her delivery of relevant information and open about her intentions to pursue a potential travel bubble with Australia and the Pacific.
“I think he’ll find that COVID-19 doesn’t consult with anyone,” she said.
“Our primary focus is on keeping New Zealanders safe. My concern is the Opposition’s primary focus seems to be taking decisions that could risk that safety.”
She said the Opposition would continue to get updates on the situation at the same time as the rest of New Zealand – during her public briefings.
The Prime Minister was then asked to respond to the criticism of her policies from the other end of the spectrum.
“What about the opposite – calls that we should close the borders to everyone, including Kiwis?” a reporter asked.
“That, I think, just demonstrates that there are a large number of people who sit in a very different position than what we’ve heard supported by the Opposition at the moment,” said Ms Ardern.
“On that, we of course have said that is not something that we have considered. It is simply not right to say that someone who has a legal right, you know as a citizen of this country, cannot come home.
“For every case that someone’s arguing against (allowing to return), that is someone’s mother, that is someone’s brother, someone’s sister, someone’s spouse.
“We can’t deem someone stateless. Because if you remove their ability to go to the place they’re able to legally reside, they could then become an illegal person somewhere else.”
Another reporter asked whether expat New Zealanders wanting to return home might “feel unwelcome” because of the public debate.
“No. Nor should they. We are working very hard to make sure that we can cater for them,” Ms Ardern responded.
“The answer that I just gave – it is their right to come home, and they are someone’s loved one. They may themselves be in a very difficult position.
“Many may have lost work, many may have family members that they need to support. There are ample reasons why we need to ensure that they can return.”
She did concede that the number of New Zealanders returning would soon overwhelm the government’s current quarantine capacity.
With that in mind, it is working rapidly to expand the number of people it can support.
Ms Ardern specified that there are currently 6103 beds, 4858 of which are occupied. The government is expecting 2751 new arrivals this week, with 1759 people departing quarantine in that period.
Do the maths, and that leaves a mere 253 spare beds by week’s end.
However, she stressed that four new quarantine facilities should be open by the end of the week, raising that figure to 897.
New Zealand currently has 22 active cases of the virus, all of which came from overseas and are contained in quarantine. There is no evidence of community transmission.
It recorded no new cases in the last 24 hours.