Jacinda Ardern hypes coronavirus business-aid plan as Simon Bridges urges minimum wage bump delay

Jacinda Ardern is confident in her soon-to-be announced support package for coronavirus-affected businesses, while Simon Bridges is urging her to delay the scheduled minimum wage bump. 

"What we want to make sure is that we are directly targeting those businesses that are affected by the global impact of COVID-19 rather than businesses that are not," the Prime Minister said on Tuesday. 

She announced on Monday that Cabinet had approved the development of a 'Business Continuity Package' to help support the economy through the disruption caused by the coronavirus COVID-19. 

The package - to be announced next week - will include a targeted wage subsidy scheme for workers in the most-affected sectors, training and re-deployment options for affected employees, and a plan for banks to help support struggling businesses. 

"That work is going to take us a few days but we'll be ready to present something next week... What we will not do is simply choose a figure and then design something to fit within it," Ardern told reporters. 

"Instead, what we will do is design a package that supports those businesses that need support at this time as we face this global issue to ensure that they can continue to employ their staff and keep their business running."

She also said it's important the Government targets "those who are genuinely affected - we don't want to see a situation where wage subsidies are being used to prop up businesses that otherwise would be failing". 

Opposition leader Simon Bridges said on Tuesday not only does the Government need to move faster on the package, but also needs to seriously consider halting the next minimum wage increase planned for next month. 

"I think it's very important that the Government halts the minimum wage increase set for 1 April. In an economic crisis, people are better off in work than on the doll," Bridges told reporters. 

The minimum wage is set to rise to $18.90 in April, up from $17.70, in what will be the second $1.20 increase in a row under the current Government. 

Halting the next bump is supported by ANZ Bank, which said on Monday "scrapping this year's minimum wage rise seems like a no-brainer" as the global economy struggles under the COVID-19 trade slump.

"We should have as a main priority keeping people in jobs they have at the current time," Bridges said. "It's one thing to lift the minimum wage significantly in good times, but when we're in or facing a recession, I think that's a different thing and it needs to be re-visited."

The Prime Minister was asked at her Monday post-Cabinet press conference if she is considering delaying the April 1 minimum wage increase, and she said "no"

She said the New Zealand economy is in a relatively strong position, with low debt and a $12 billion infrastructure package recently announced that will help to stimulate growth. 

Finance Minister Grant Robertson told reporters on Tuesday: "We have gone into this with a net debt position lower than what we inherited... We have some fiscal space to be able to deal with it."

Bridges pushed back on Robertson's justification, saying: "I don't really think that's got a whole lot to do with small businesses paying [the costs associated with the minimum wage increase]."

Wage subsidies have been used by the Government before, such as in 2011 following the Christchurch earthquake when then-PM John Key announced a subsidy for employers who believed they could stay in business. 

The National-led Government at the time also handed out job loss cover, specifically $400 a week in hand for a period of six weeks paid to fulltime employees and $240 for part-time workers. 

Bridges said wage support was "very important keeping those small businesses going but also keeping people in jobs". 

So far, the Government has announced an $11 million fund for tourism and the Ministry of Social Development is offering assistance to workers in COVID-19-affected industries. 

An increase to regional business support funding has been announced, and Government departments have been directed to cut payment times to businesses to 10 working days.

The Government also confirmed on Monday the stand-down period for beneficiaries seeking support from Work and Income has been removed.