Coronavirus: 'Take me out of God's waiting room and put me back to work', business leader begs

An Auckland business leader says he's sick of sitting in "God's waiting room" and wants the country back at work as soon as possible.

New Zealand has spent three weeks in lockdown, with only workers deemed essential allowed to go to work - the rest of us having to work from home where possible, or just sitting around and waiting to see if we'll have jobs to return to when it's over.

It's been disastrous for the economy, but health experts say it's been essential to stop the local spread of COVID-19 - which has killed at least 134,000 people worldwide and nine here, so far.

The lockdown appears to be working, New Zealand not experiencing the kind of uncontrolled exponential growth seen in many other countries, but that hasn't stopped calls for things to get back to normal.

"I'm sick and tired of hearing the Government and others say to me what I can't do, and I think the conversation needs to be what we can do," Auckland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Michael Barnett told The AM Show on Thursday.

"From a business perspective... if you want safe, we'll do safe. We're into that now. But business is ready to go back."

Economist Cameron Bagrie, appearing earlier on The AM Show, said measures taken by the Government are looking likely expand its debt by $100 billion, taking into account money it's spending to save jobs and businesses and lowered tax revenue from dampened economic activity.

"Unemployment rate's gonna be double-digit. A disturbing aspect of that is going to be the mix, because if you look at [history], Maori unemployment tends to be double the rate of national unemployment - so we could see some 20 percent-plus numbers for Maori and Pacific Islanders, and that's going to be really disturbing." 

Michael Barnett.
Michael Barnett. Photo credit: The AM Show

Most of New Zealand's cases of COVID-19 can be traced back to people arriving from overseas. Strict quarantine measures are now in place to stop more people bringing it in, and the lockdown is meant to stop the spread of the disease through the community. 

Health experts have warned if the lockdown is lifted before the virus' spread has been halted, we could end up with waves of infections, resulting in further lockdowns and even greater economic damage.

And a study by Chinese scientists released last week found greater rates of infection in areas with greater economic activity

But Barnett says if we're "sensible about it", with five days' notice businesses could be back up and running.

"Take the pressures off the supermarkets - let the cafe open and the butchery and the greengrocer. Let the manufacturing exporter get back to work... let residential construction start. They don't stand around in groups and have a fag anymore - these guys work... Get our roading construction up again.

"Let me be fast and furious - take me out of God's waiting room and put me back to work, for God's sake."