Coronavirus: Government 'started OK' with wage subsidies, but is now 'resting on its laurels' - Steven Joyce

The Government shouldn't wait until Budget Day to provide additional economic relief to New Zealand, a former Finance Minister warns, as by then it'll be too late for many small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

Steven Joyce, who served as Finance Minister under Bill English's National Government, says his successor Grant Robertson made a timely intervention when he introduced wage subsidies as part of a $12.1 billion coronavirus aid package on March 17.

He says while New Zealand's economic response to COVID-19 was much swifter than that of Australia - which suffered major business and job losses before introducing a financial package of its own - it hasn't followed that up with any other major announcements.

"I think the wage subsidy [came] at the right time, and initially it was the right amount," Joyce told Peter Williams on Magic Talk on Thursday morning.

"I worry that there hasn't been enough of a follow-up given how this thing's unfolded, but hopefully that'll be addressed in the Budget in three weeks' time."

On Thursday, Finance Minister Grant Robertson hinted at a 'helicopter money' scheme - an approach in which Kiwis would literally be given free money in efforts to get the country spending again - as part of this year's Budget.

However his predecessor Joyce worries the Budget - which will be unveiled on May 14 - could be too late to announce a new plan to save SMEs, as by then many will have gone under.

"[Australia] has now come forward with much bigger support for SMEs, which I think is merited in New Zealand now, because most of those businesses are facing effectively a seven-week lockdown with no guarantee that it ends at that point."

While the initial fiscal response to the coronavirus crisis "started off OK", the Government could now be accused of "rest[ing] on their laurels a little bit," Joyce said.

The industry that suffers the most from this inaction is the hospitality sector, Joyce says, and he believes the Government is now "honour-bound to support them as much as they can".

"These sacrifices are being made [by the hospitality sector] on behalf of society because society wants to get this virus under control, which is entirely understandable," he explained.

"But for this group of society who take risks to build their businesses to bear this share of the pain is unsustainable, and we're going to see a lot of damage out of this… They should be supported more."

Joyce believes the Government should step in promptly to give SMEs a helping hand, before turning its attention to households and then a more general stimulus package.

But he admitted the role of Finance Minister is a demanding one - especially during a crisis like the global COVID-19 pandemic - and that Robertson is "between a rock and a hard place" in much of his decision-making.

"They're very difficult decisions," he said.

"I was thinking about it the other day; I probably wouldn't see my family for weeks, if not months, on end [if I were still in the job]. Those are all the challenges that come with the role - so in some degrees I miss it, but other degrees I definitely don't."