COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has criticised former Prime Minister Sir John Key for his views on the pandemic response in New Zealand.
Hipkins, who was speaking on TVNZ's Q+A programme on Sunday morning, said he "really didn't agree" with Sir John describing New Zealand as a "smug hermit kingdom".
"I think it's a great piece of politics," Hipkins said. "Actually many things that John Key's arguing are already happening."
"I think that's an insult to New Zealanders who have actually achieved some of the highest rates of freedom in the world by going hard and going early when we've needed to."
Sir John wrote a column for NZ media outlets, in which he said New Zealanders should no longer be living "in a smug hermit kingdom but to get back to a life where New Zealanders can travel overseas - for any reason - knowing they can return home when they want to, and where we again welcome visitors to this country.".
Hipkins said on Q+A the Government still maintained their plan to get back to zero COVID-19 cases.
"Vaccination plays a really big role in what happens next," Hipkins said. "We can't keep using level 3 and level 4 restrictions, the level of restrictions we have at the border.
"Again it is something that we will have to allow for greater movement at the border in the future."
The COVID-19 Response Minister said the key to getting back to normal was getting vaccination rates as high as possible.
"Take Auckland for example, at the beginning of this week just passed, we still had around 23,000 over the age of 65 who haven't been vaccinated," he told TVNZ.
"It means that when a case pops up, it doesn't mean there's going to be a public health emergency every time.
"But it does mean we can respond quickly when we see cases and we will have different tools to do that.
"If there are high concentration pockets of people who aren't vaccinated then that still poses a significant risk."
In his column, Sir John likened the current pandemic response approach to North Korea, saying this approach had made the "public fearful".
"Public health experts and politicians have done a good job of making the public fearful, and therefore willing to accept multiple restrictions on their civil liberties which are disproportionate to the risk of them contracting COVID."
Sir John said the current approach needed a re-think and the "hermit kingdom model" is relying on people believing "the Government can go on borrowing $1 billion every week to disguise that we are no longer making our way in the world".
Hipkins did warn that the virus is "evolving" and that the Government won't be afraid to re-think their approach if COVID changes.
"We're reaching the end potentially of being able to use that (lockdown) approach," he told TVNZ. "But if other variants emerge, that are vaccine resistant for example, then we have to re-think. COVID continues to evolve, it continues to mutate, so the challenges we're faced with continues to change."