Jacinda Ardern rules against butchers opening as supermarkets described as lockdown's 'Achilles heel'

The Prime Minister is standing firm against calls to allow butchers and greengrocers to open during alert level 4 and take some of the pressure off supermarkets, described as the COVID-19 lockdown's "Achilles heel".

Jacinda Ardern says allowing butchers and greengrocers to open would lead to other food providers such as bakeries and delicatessens opening too, prompting supply chains to service them, and opening up more risk.  

"We have had to reduce that on-to-one contact that members of the public will be having for some of those services," Ardern told The AM Show on Monday. "I know how hard it is."

The Prime Minister said she is aware that the lockdown has significantly impacted small businesses, the likes of which are butchers and greengrocers, and she urged them to apply for the wage subsidy scheme.

"We will keep working as quickly as we can to get back to a level where we don't have that kind of restriction," she said, after earlier confirming that the lockdown will be four weeks, with no decision made yet on whether to extend it.

The Prime Minister's confirmation that butchers and other food providers will not be able to open during lockdown comes as a supermarket staff member in Northland has tested positive for the coronavirus. 

"Supermarket shopping is the Achilles heel of this whole project," said ACT Party leader David Seymour.

He said having 50 people in one supermarket at all times, and a constantly changing 50 people, is the "most dangerous activity we have" during the pandemic, and said allowing other food providers to open could minimise that risk.

National MP Todd McClay said with the economy already facing "unprecedented devastation" since the Government implemented alert level 4, it should be doing all it can to help protect businesses and jobs.

He said there have been "too many inconsistencies" in the rules around which businesses are considered essential services.

"For instance, allowing dairies to open but not local butchers or greengrocers, agriculture to continue but not forestry, cigarettes to be manufactured but community newspapers cannot be printed," he said.

"If a business proves it can operate safely, provide contactless selling and ensure physical distancing then they should be able to operate."

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said last week the Government "carefully weighed the risk" of allowing butchers to open their shops for retail customers, but the risk of spreading the virus was too great.

Changes were made to allow butchers to process pork, but only for supply to supermarkets or other processors or retailers that are open.

He acknowledged that there is not enough capacity to hold surplus pigs on farms or pig carcasses in processing facilities, which could create an animal welfare issue, so the decision was made by Cabinet to allow supply to supermarkets.

Seymour described the move as "illogical".

He said it makes no sense for customers to travel further to a bigger and busier supermarket store to buy pork that was recently at the premises of their local butcher.

"Small stores selling essential supplies can either do so safely or they can't. The Government knows they can because it has approved dairies to open.

"By allowing butchers to process pork in response to welfare concerns for pigs, the Government has shown it can be flexible. It should now be logical and allow butchers to open fully."

The Prime Minister told The AM Show she will not be "making any remarks any time soon" on when the lockdown period will end, as it is still too early to see the "full effect" of it.