COVID-19: Government looks to remove stand-down periods for beneficiaries amid coronavirus spread

The Government has "agreed in principal" to remove the stand-down period for beneficiaries seeking support from Work and Income amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made the announcement during a brief press conference following a meeting she held with ministers and officials to discuss New Zealand's response to coronavirus, or COVID-19. 

"Our goal is that for people who need immediate support because of the impact of COVID-19 are able to receive that support through Work and Income," Ardern told reporters on Wednesday. 

Work and Income's stand-down period is where beneficiaries cannot get money from the Government for about one to two weeks after their application has been approved. 

Ardern said the Ministry of Social Development has the ability to use hardship grants to plug the gap while one-week stand-down periods are in place, but the Government plans to remove the periods for those affected by COVID-19. 

It follows the Ministry of Health's confirmation on Wednesday of a second COVID-19 case in New Zealand, a woman in her 30s who had travelled from northern Italy where the virus is now widespread. 

The Prime Minister meets with her Cabinet every Monday, and during the press conference she said she will now be meeting "regularly as a Cabinet committee on Wednesdays specifically to discuss our response to COVID-19". 

She said that does "not remove the ability for us to meet as required wherever we are in the country as health officials require it", which she said is what happened when the Government considered further travel restrictions announced on Monday. 

Ardern said she told health officials that whenever they have advice on border restrictions or self-isolation requirements, they are to "bring ministers with power to act immediately for us to consider that advice, no matter what time of day". 

The meeting on Wednesday included officials from the Ministry of Primary Industries, the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, the State Services Commission, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Customs, and the PM's chief science advisor. 

What did the meeting cover?

The Prime Minister said the economic impacts of COVID-19 were discussed at the meeting, including the effect it has had on Gisborne where industries have been hit by delays at the border or ports due to domestic travel restrictions within China.

Economic Development Minister Phil Twyford has visited the region and reported back with opportunities for the Government to provide solutions that can keep workforces engaged in employment. 

Ardern said there are ongoing discussions about bringing roading projects forward in Gisborne and using the forestry workforce on those projects with a "bit of extra training and support".

The Government has already announced an $11 million fund for tourism and the Ministry of Social Development is offering assistance to workers in affected industries.

On Tuesday, relief came for crayfish exporters, too - they can now carry forward uncaught harvests after exports to China collapsed. 

Finance Minister Grant Robertson has indicated that he is open to tax cuts if the economic situation worsens, telling The AM Show this week: "I'm keeping all options on the table at the moment."