Coronavirus: Uncertainty over details of mass gatherings ban and stimulus package

By Jo Moir for RNZ

The response to the Covid-19 crisis kicked up another notch on Monday with the Prime Minister calling a halt to gatherings of more than 500 people, and warning of a recession greater than that of the Global Financial Crisis.

But the uncertainty remains ahead of today's stimulus package and guidance on gatherings such as weddings.

The National Party isn't pulling any punches, saying the Government has taken too long to get it right.

Jacinda Ardern's announcement about mass gatherings - which follows similar moves around the globe - comes before a major economic stimulus package due to be unveiled on Tuesday.

Ardern delivered a sobering message at her weekly post-Cabinet press conference on Monday, telling the country to prepare for the worst.

"The preliminary advice I have received from the Treasury this weekend is that the economic impact of the virus on New Zealand could be greater than the impact of the Global Financial Crisis," she said.

The package is expected to centre around jobs and cushioning those suffering the most immediate effects of strengthening border controls.

In that sense it's likely to be different to the response of other countries, like Australia, where the focus has been on direct payments in the hand.

Part of Tuesday's announcement will be Finance Minister Grant Robertson telling New Zealanders just how bad things are, and he's already warned it isn't pretty.

"The New Zealand economy is part of the global economy and the global economy is going through an economic shock at the moment, we have to respond to support New Zealanders through that," he said.

Tuesday's business continuity package is expected to be job-focussed - that is, how to keep employees in work and any sort of subsidies that might help with that.

It could also look to address the costs incurred by employers and their employees with people increasingly needing to self-isolate for 14 days.

Festivals and weddings taking hit

The new norm in New Zealand is already being felt deeply by those in the entertainment business - a further blow came with Ardern calling time on mass gatherings - either indoors or out.

That was game over for Wellington street festival, Cuba Dupa, and its event director Gerry Paul.

"We're all devastated obviously, it's a year's planning and creative ideas that have gone into putting on this festival and there are so many thousands of people that are involved in making it a success, but we can completely understand the call from the prime minister and the Government," he said.

Ardern will announce more detailed advice and potentially tougher restrictions on public gatherings in coming days, including weddings and funerals.

For wedding planner Kate Bayens, the cancellations have already started and will only continue if restrictions extend to smaller gatherings.

"If locals can't have their weddings it's going to have a huge impact, people will lose their deposits and then obviously the rippling affects that goes down to those businesses and a lot of those are small businesses.''

She said it's an incredibly difficult time for people planning their special day.

"When you are dealing with couples for a year and a half pre-wedding you've built up a pretty big relationship with them, so it's devastating to see that they can't go ahead with their wedding, especially being such an emotional experience and celebration, people are absolutely gutted," she said.

Ardern isn't immune to that heartbreak.

"I do recognise that actually already some of the measures we have put in pace have affected weddings, I know people who have already had weddings affected because of the border controls and I know how devastating that must be," she said.

'Could be too late'

But National's health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse said while the Government had landed in the right place with Monday's announcement - it could be too late.

"The likelihood is that transmission is already occurring, because that has been the experience of other countries who took similar action to us.

"I don't know why New Zealand would have thought that they were going to be any different from other advanced nations like Germany, like the United Kingdom and of course like Italy," he said.

Ardern has also sent a message to anyone arriving in New Zealand contemplating skirting the quarantine rules.

"We will look after you if you look after us, if you come here and have no intention of following our requirements to self-isolate, frankly you are not welcome and you should leave before you are deported," she said.

But Woodhouse said finding information about how to self-isolate wasn't particularly easy and a full-scale public campaign is needed.

That's one of the things the Government could roll out once Tuesday's economic package has been delivered.