Former National Finance Ministers Steven Joyce and Bill English question the severity of the Covid-19 lockdown and ask whether the Government has an exit strategy. Andrew Patterson reports.

Steven Joyce and Bill English have seen their fair share of financial crises and natural disasters as the last National Government’s finance ministers and economic fire fighters. Now, they have come out quietly to challenge the Government’s handling of the lockdown and its ability to extricate businesses and workers from a lockdown that they say could last three months.

While the Government has provided a range of financial support packages to help businesses get through the current lockdown, the uncertainty of how long they will be forced to remain closed is creating a growing level of angst, particularly among small to medium businesses, as owners begin to question their future livelihood and whether their businesses remain as going concerns.

The Government’s stance on certain non-essential businesses being unable to trade is being called into question by Joyce.

While he supports the lockdown in principle and the need to maintain public health, he questions why the Government hasn’t done more to establish a “middle ground” that would allow certain businesses to continue to trade.

“The Government has broader responsibilities beyond public health. I believe they need to start talking about how businesses can begin to transition out of the lockdown, even now, where certain businesses would be able to operate creating no greater risk to public health than currently exists,” Joyce told Newsroom in an interview.

He cites examples of online businesses with contactless delivery systems or even butcher shops adopting the one-in-one-out system that has been successfully used by dairies and pharmacies as ways this transition could begin to be managed without compromising the principles of the lockdown.

A middle way

“The Government should sit down with business leaders and public health officials together and start ranking the opportunities to begin transitioning out [of the lockdown] that are the least risky from a public health perspective. Currently there is no indication that is happening at this point,” Joyce said.

Joyce’s call follows similar remarks by former Prime Minister Sir Bill English in a private briefing to Jarden investors last week.

In a transcript of his remarks that has been widely circulated, English said the Government must start looking beyond the lockdown.

Exit strategy?

“What does this look like, and when might it be enacted? I understand medical experts would like to see the lockdown remain in place for 12-13 weeks. A lockdown of that duration has clear economic implications, meaning an exit strategy needs to be formulated,” English said.

English said one of the most important requirements for a Government in times like this was to listen.

“It is very important that the government develops a feedback loop to understand how policies land and adjust quickly, which means listening hard,”

The drumbeat from businesses is set to get louder in the coming weeks as the reality of the current situation continues to bite hard.

Given the advantages that online businesses were able to provide and the employment opportunities they would offer, balancing the risk to public health versus the damage that would continue to be inflicted on the New Zealand economy the longer the lockdown drags on, would be a balancing act that would increasingly be called into question, he said.

Andrew Patterson is Newsroom's Markets Editor and has worked for decades as a financial journalist, radio presenter and editor with Australia's ABC, Radio Live and NBR.

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