Coronavirus: Grant Robertson hints at construction workforce coming back during alert level 3

The Finance Minister has hinted at the construction workforce coming back into action when the current alert level 4 lockdown measures are reduced, as New Zealand passes the "peak" of coronavirus. 

Grant Robertson told the Epidemic Response Committee on Tuesday that he is "optimistic" that construction work will get underway when New Zealand enters alert level 3, with the Government set to confirm next week when that will be. 

Australia has allowed construction to continue during the COVID-19 pandemic, and has reported a relatively similar amount of cases to New Zealand, prompting some MPs to question the Government's strict lockdown criteria. 

The Government has spent around $9 billion so far subsidising the wages of employees during the lockdown to protect the jobs of more than a million workers. 

National MP Paul Goldsmith said if New Zealand followed Australia's lead, construction workers could have continued working if they had been given the chance to show how they could demonstrate physical distancing and follow best practice. 

"I'll argue that level 4 is doing exactly what we wanted it to do for New Zealand and for New Zealanders," Robertson replied. "I feel like the clarity around what we've done has worked well for us."

Robertson said construction is an industry the Government has been "working closely with" to determine what "safe economic activity looks like for them" in a level 3 and a level 2 framework. 

He told the committee the last thing the Government wants is to come out of alert level 4 and then have to go back again. 

"What worries me is not so much looking to Australia, but Europe and the United States, where the enthusiasm people have to come out of a restricted environment too early causes more disruption by yo-yoing between levels."

He said the Government is working with the construction sector to "get clear what's possible under the alert level 3 and level 2", and said he is "very optimistic we will be in a position to be able see economic activity in that industry in those levels". 

It comes as Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield confirmed that New Zealand has "passed the peak" of the coronavirus, with just 17 new cases reported on Tuesday, bringing the total number to 1366. 

Robertson said Business New Zealand, the Council of Trade Unions and WorkSafe are currently discussing what a healthy and safe workplace looks like at the levels below 4, with more details to be announced on Thursday. 

"There is a shared desire among industry and Government to get back to work as soon as possible and health and safety is an important part of the workplace in an everyday setting, and even more so we could argue here."

With much of the primary sector workforce deemed essential during the lockdown to provide food, Robertson said officials have been able to learn from what worked for them, and apply it to sectors that will come back during alert level 3. 

"There are a lot of lessons to draw from that."

He said another important issue to consider is the confidence of employees returning to work and whether they feel the environment they work in is safe from COVID-19. 

"It's all very well to say 'yes, a particular sector can open up under these conditions', but the people who work in that sector need to be confident that they are going into an environment that is healthy and safe," Robertson said. 

"One of the worst things that could happen is workers feeling a loss of confidence in being at work."

The Government announced plans earlier this month to fund large "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects to boost the economy after the COVID-19 lockdown, as the infrastructure sector projected 30 percent fewer jobs in the coming months.  

The new projects will be funded in addition to, and build on, the Government's already massive $12 billion New Zealand Upgrade Programme announced in late 2019, and existing Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) infrastructure investments. 

Robertson is confident New Zealand can tackle the economic impact of COVID-19, with net debt at 19.2 percent of GDP, well below the OECD average of around 70 percent.