Coronavirus: Simon Bridges urges Government to lift lockdown next week, take Australian approach

National Party leader Simon Bridges is urging the Government to lift the nationwide lockdown next week and implement an approach similar to Australia.

New Zealand is about to enter its fourth week under alert level 4, which requires Kiwis to stay at their residences unless they are seeking essential services or exercising.

With non-essential businesses closed, many employers are facing significant economic upheaval and have been forced to make workers redundant despite the Government's wage subsidy scheme cushioning some of the blow. The Treasury forecasts unemployment could hit peak between 17.5 percent and 26 percent if the lockdown is extended past the middle of next week.

The decision on whether to keep the country under alert level 4 will be made on Monday by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, but National's Bridges is urging her Government to take New Zealand out of lockdown and implement an approach similar to what Australia has done.

"We should get out of lockdown next week and we should let business and workers get back to it," he told The AM Show.

"[Australia] has had very similar health outcomes, but they have had better economic ones. They went in with slightly higher unemployment, they are going to come out with lower. The reason for that is they have let things happen. Builders are still building, baristas are still making coffee, hairdressers are still cutting hair, all of that sort of thing."

Australia's approach is less stringent than in New Zealand. Their focus has been on reducing non-essential mass gatherings and enforcing physical distancing measures in public. While the approach has reduced person-to-person contact, it's also allowed some industries - like construction and manufacturing - to continue operating during the pandemic.

Despite the differences in lockdown measures, on a per-capita basis, Australia and New Zealand have had similar case numbers. Australia has recorded 6400 cases and 61 deaths compared to New Zealand's more than 1300 cases and nine deaths, but Australia's population is almost 25 million compared to New Zealand's 4.8 million - five times more people.  

The comparison between Australia and New Zealand was a key focus on Tuesday's parliamentary Epidemic Response Committee, which featured epidemiologist Sir David Skegg. 

Sir David described Australia's results as an "enigma", noting that while case numbers were similar between the countries, Australia's hospitalisation numbers are far higher. New Zealand's lockdown may also only last for four weeks, compared to Australia's measures likely being in place for many months. 

Bridges told The AM Show he wasn't critical of New Zealand going into lockdown, but wanted Aotearoa to be "agile and adept and able to move quite quickly". 

"I am certainly urging [the Government] as loudly and clearly as I can… let's come out of lockdown, we can do what Australia fundamentally has done."

Bridges said New Zealand can work towards both health and economic outcomes at the same time by ensuring our borders are tight, fast testing and contact tracing is underway, and personal protective equipment is readily available, while also "safely allowing a lot of workers to get back into it".

He said we should be asking: "Actually, can this business get up and running safely? If they can, let's let them do it so there aren't distinctions between one online trader and another, there aren't this truck sending these goods is essential, this one isn't. Let's let businesses do a lot more."

"The social and health consequences of 800,000 people or several hundred thousand, whatever the number is, on the dole, would be truly awful for our country and we should do all we can to resist it and to grow our economy."

Finance Minister Grant Robertson said on Tuesday that 26 percent unemployment was "unacceptable".

"We don't see that scenario playing out, but it is a good indication of why it is so important that we stick to the rules and we emerge from level 4 as we possibly can."

If the Government provided more financial support, Treasury's forecasts found unemployment could be kept under 10 percent and return to 5 percent next year.

Prime Minister Ardern has said the decision next week over whether to extend or lift the lockdown will be made on the most up-to-date data. That likely will include modelling showing the chance of another outbreak if the measures were lifted. 

If New Zealand does leave lockdown, it will go to alert level 3. Some restrictions will remain in place. For example, travel in areas with clusters or community transmission will be limited, mass gatherings will be banned and public venues remain shut. Full details about what it will look like will be released on Thursday.