Coronavirus: Westland Mayor Bruce Smith sick of hearing from health experts about COVID-19, wants business leaders to have more say

A South Island Mayor says it's time New Zealand realised it's going to have to live with COVID-19, just like his grandparents' generation did with polio

Bruce Smith, Mayor of Westland, says he also wants to see fewer health experts on TV because it's the "business community that keeps us alive".

The South Island is expected to move down from level 4 to level 3 next week, with none of the few hundred close contacts of the Auckland cluster yet testing positive for the virus. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Friday extended the region's time in level 4 an extra few days so any potential cases that take a bit longer to develop symptoms can be picked up.

Many down south are angry at the delay, and that they're not going to the less restrictive level 2.

"It's a bit frustrating you know, to have Wellington with say 14 active cases and the South Island with none, and for us all to be at the same level doesn't make a lot of sense to me," Smith told Newshub Nation on Saturday.

"I have to say my thoughts last night were with the business community. We see lots on TV and it's always health professionals - we don't see our business community that keeps us alive. My thoughts are with them."

Before the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus was picked up earlier this month, New Zealand was one of just a handful of major economies that didn't have community transmission of the virus, which has killed millions worldwide in the last 18 months. Eliminating the virus was a boost to the economy, which recovered much stronger than many expected and saw unemployment quickly return to its pre-pandemic level of 4 percent. 

But Smith disagrees with epidemiologists that a strong health response is the best way to help the economy. 

"I think the people who say that are all being paid by the state. They get their pay every Thursday, doesn't make a lot of difference to them. Coming out into the real world, you'll find it's totally different."

He complained the Government's economic help has been too focused on employees, and not enough on business owners, despite there being numerous assistance packages available.

"While the subsidies have worked really well for staff, [employers are] the people who wake up every morning looking at their insurance payments, their lease payments, the repayments on their cars, all of their overheads. They are in a dreadful position. I just feel terribly sorry for them." 

He called for a more "balanced… mix between our economy and our health", saying the Government's response was "very focused on a health response" at the expense of business.

"The reality is COVID is with us. It's no different to polio back in my grandparents' days. The only way that we can fix it is we've got to be vaccinated. I've encouraged everybody to get vaccinated, but even then it's still going to come in. It'll come in from overseas. It's part of our lives from here on in and we need to adapt."

Bruce Smith.
Bruce Smith. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

Newshub Nation host Simon Shepherd asked Smith what he thought of epidemiologists who say a 'living with the virus' strategy could better be thought of as a 'dying with the virus' strategy.

"There's lots of people who have different opinions, different agendas," he replied. "I agree with whoever it was that said level 3 is level 4 with takeaways." 

That was National Party leader Judith Collins in April last year during the first nationwide level 4 lockdown. At the time she was arguing in favour of a looser level 3, citing Australia's less restrictive approach. 

Australia has had 991 COVID deaths so far, compared to New Zealand's 26. The inability of New South Wales to curb its latest outbreak has been blamed on leaders' unwillingness to implement a New Zealand-style lockdown. New Zealand's outbreak is believed to have been seeded by a traveller from New South Wales.