The issues Simon Bridges will raise during COVID-19 Epidemic Response Committee hearings

Simon Bridges is set to lead a series of parliamentary hearings to scrutinise the Government's COVID-19 response, and he’ll be raising issues around testing criteria and calls to keep some food services open. 

Speaking to Magic Talk from his home in Tauranga, the National Party leader said he will travel to Wellington to chair the Epidemic Response Committee, a group of 11 MPs of which the majority of will be in Opposition.

Bridges said the committee will receive advice from Sir David Skegg, a renowned public health expert from Otago University, as well as economist and commentator Shamubeel Eaqub.

Bridges will be the only member of the committee present while the others will videoconference. He said with Parliament suspended during lockdown, the committee's role is important in making sure the Government's response is working for all New Zealanders.

"I do expect it to be successful in a positive and constructive way," Bridges said.

"If I look back since January, where the Opposition has pushed and sought to see change and improvements and more urgency, the Government has almost invariably done what we have suggested... I think that can happen again."

That being said, Bridges told Magic Talk there are "many issues" he plans to raise with the committee, including feedback he said he's received from some essential services saying they don't have enough PPE.

Bridges said he heard from a farmer in tears who was concerned about his staff not having enough protection from the virus, and had received similar emails from healthcare workers.

"We'll be raising those sorts of things and I think getting a pretty good response from the Government on them as they hear the things on the ground that we are hearing," Bridges said.

Opposition leader Simon Bridges will lead a special parliamentary committee to scrutinise the Government's response to COVID-19.
Opposition leader Simon Bridges will lead a special parliamentary committee to scrutinise the Government's response to COVID-19. Photo credit: Getty

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reassured health workers across the country that they will have access to PPE, such as face masks, although she said there are some issues with distribution in New Zealand.

Speaking to Newshub Nation on Saturday, Ardern said the Government is planning to "tighten that up", as some frontline healthcare workers have threatened to stop working fearing exposure to the virus which has infected more than 500 Kiwis so far.

Bridges also plans to question the Government's directive that butcheries, bakeries and greengroceries must close during the four-week lockdown period while supermarkets and dairies can remain open.

ACT leader David Seymour, a member of the committee, wants the Government to make those businesses essential services to avoid price hikes and prevent supermarkets from having "monopoly power".

Seymour said any business allowed to open should be required to meet physical distancing protocols. He said if dairies can manage it, so too can bakeries, butchers, and fresh fruit and vegetable stores.

Bridges questioned why the Prime Minister is signalling exceptions for halal butcheries – those which adhere to Islamic practice - but not all the other specialist grocery stores servicing ethnic communities.

What else will be scrutinised?

Bridges plans to question the decision to stop a number of local newspaper distributions across the country, arguing they are essential for many people in getting crucial information about the virus.

"I can't for the life of me see why the Herald and Stuff, for example, are essential services that must stay open, but these other provincial papers and ethnic papers servicing the Chinese and Indian and other ethnic communities, shouldn't also be open."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said there might be an opportunity for local newspapers to continue during the lockdown if they can "satisfy" concerns about the virus potentially spreading through distribution.

Bridges will also scrutinise the COVID-19 testing criteria. Only people with symptoms of the virus and those who have been in contact with someone with it can get tested - however, GPs can now use discretion to test someone who doesn't fit the criteria.

"I still believe - and I say this with all the constructiveness I can put into it - that the criteria aren't right and not enough people are being tested," Bridges said. "The availability of kits isn't there."

It comes as the head of a Queenstown-based stem cell company says she offered the Government access to rapid testing kits for COVID-19, but was turned away.

The Ministry of Health says laboratories are working to process and report test results as quickly as possible. Taken over a seven-day period, the average daily test number is 1786.