Coronavirus: Businesses call for speed and clarity on COVID-19 assistance

The Government is facing criticism for not moving fast enough on a package to help businesses affected by the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Cabinet on Monday approved the development of a business continuity package which will include a targeted wage subsidy scheme, training and re-deployment options, and the government working with banks on the potential of future working capital support.

Businesses welcomed the news, but some were disappointed in the lack of detail and how long the government had taken to respond.

Forest Industry Contractors Association chief executive Prue Younger said she had been warning about the potentially devastating impact of Covid-19 for weeks.

"You know, we're another week in, we're another week of our contractors with no substance to staying in business," she said.

Younger said the industry had faced a lot of carnage already, and she suspected that even once the details of the assistance package were announced - it would not be enough.

She said the situation was too far gone for things like wage subsidies to turn the situation around.

"I kinda think for those contractors that are still going to be going but we've just lost 50 percent potentially of our industry.

"They'll basically be able to help those people that have had a bit of resilience up their sleeves.

"Put it this way, I think it's going to be almost too late," Younger said.

Skyline Queenstown chief executive Geoff McDonald said he was pleased the government was working on an assistance package, but he would like more detail.

"Skyline is reasonably robust, it's a fairly large, successful organisation so we've got some degree of resilience.

"But some of the smaller tourism operators out there are going to be hurting right now and so the challenge is looking to the future and having at least some sort of milestones to say 'well, if I can make it there I can get access to X initiative and Y initiative'. That's what we really need," he said.

McDonald said Skyline so far had been able to manage the slowdown by reducing staff hours.

"We're yet to move into looking for people to take leave without pay but those are all sorts of things that we've got lined up if we need to react further."

McDonald said businesses were also being hit with the "double-whammy" of a minimum wage increase from next month.

"We've got this challenging environment and we've got this sort of ratcheting up of wage and salary bill, so it is difficult. Tourism industry is very labour intensive so your wage bill is such a large part of your overall expenses," McDonald said.

Rotorua Canopy Tours general manager Paul Button said he was really encouraged by the government's announcement and he understood they needed to take the time to work through it.

"I guess it is what it is, they've got a process that they have to follow and when they come out with the information they need to come out with exactly what it's going to be because they can't over-promise," he said.

Button said an increase in domestic bookings has softened the blow so far - and he was working hard to ensure things could keep ticking along.

He welcomed the idea of a targeted wage subsidy scheme.

"Our staff are really important to us and we know we're going to need them when all this bounces back. Something along those lines would be amazing," he said.

Restaurant Association chief executive Marisa Bidois said while she was really pleased to hear that help was on the way for businesses, it could have come much quicker.

"We would really like to have seen something happen sooner and we do feel like we have been waiting for that.

"I'd like to think that this will have an impact and assist businesses but I guess we'll have to wait and see."

Finance Minister Grant Robertson said the economic shock was unprecedented and required a tailor-made response, which needed to be worked through.

"This will have a serious impact on the New Zealand economy across the year," he told Morning Report.

"These kinds of schemes are always temporary, so we've got to be able to design it in such a way that they support people to get through the next phase of this, that's the work we have to do now."

National's finance spokesperson Paul Goldsmith said the government should move quickly with a business continuity package similar to what the National government had in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes.

"We've been talking about this for a number of weeks now and it's something we all expect the government will be moving on this week, and it's just a bit disappointing that the announcement was that they're still thinking about it."

"The reality is, you don't want to be doing these things at all. But what we're dealing with is extraordinary circumstances and the Government's moved very quickly to make it easy for people to get onto benefits immediately. It's far better to keep people in jobs, assuming that this is going to be a short-term issue."

However, Robertson said the fact that the coronavirus wasn't region-specific made it a more complex beast.

"This is not like previous times where wage subsidy schemes, for example, have been considered where there was a geographic area related to an earthquake, for example, so we do have to get the design right."

Goldsmith acknowledged that events are changing rapidly, but said businesses are feeling the pressure now.

"We need some quick reaction from the Government."

On Monday, ANZ suggested the government should shelve the planned minimum wage increase in April. Goldsmith wouldn't say if National would do that, but said the current Government was in the mind-set of adding costs to businesses.

"We've got a lot of pressures on businesses now and that's one important factor we need to be considering," Goldsmith said.

Robertson said the Government would not be shelving the minimum wage increase.

"That's something that's important for low and middle income people, to have money in their pockets so they can actually spend it in this situation."

ANZ also suggested yesterday that the government should shelve the fiscal responsibility rules and be prepared to borrow $60 billion and push the debt out to 40 percent of GDP.

Goldsmith said it's too early to say if we're at that stage yet.

"There are really disturbing signs internationally at the moment and, if the worst happens, then obviously some sort of stimulus is required. The size and the nature of it is something we have to work through over the next few months.

"Lets wait and see, but what we can do for now is try to reduce costs for businesses."

The Cabinet COVID-19 committee will discuss the business continuity package when it meets tomorrow, with more detailed announcements expected next week.