Simon Bridges demands COVID-19 unemployment forecasts as Carmel Sepuloni predicts benefit spike

Simon Bridges is demanding more information about the impact of COVID-19 on employment in New Zealand as the Ministry for Social Development (MSD) boss revealed she expects a spike in benefit bids. 

Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni told the Epidemic Response Committee on Thursday that at the end of March there were 310,000 working age people receiving the main benefit - an 8.2 percent increase on a year ago. 

At the end of March there were already an extra 4866 Kiwis on a benefit, and last week that number increased by another 10,000.

Bridges, leader of the Opposition, asked Sepuloni how bad the Government is projecting unemployment to get as the economic impact of the coronavirus sets in - but Sepuloni would not provide the figures. 

"The Prime Minister gave us a sense of the modelling on the health scenarios that there may well be tens of thousands fatalities," Bridges, chair of the committee, said. "That scared New Zealanders into taking the lockdown seriously... I want some numbers from you." 

Sepuloni told Bridges he will have to wait for Treasury to release the official projections next week. 

Bridges said the Government is supposed to be about "openness and transparency" and appeared outraged that Sepuloni would not disclose even the Government's rough forecasts. 

"Why should I wait - I know you have them."

Sepuloni replied: "I don't think it's in the public's interest to put out vague information."

National MP Louise Upston, the Opposition's welfare spokesperson, congratulated MSD for all the hard work it's been doing - but she questioned some of the information put forward by the minister. 

Sepuloni said that as of the end of March, there had been an 8.2 percent increase on a year ago in people receiving the main benefit, and revealed a 15 percent increase in people receiving Jobseeker support. 

But Sepuloni clarified that the data only goes up to 27 March, so it doesn't cover the entire March period, and Upston said because of that, it doesn't even reflect the scale of the crisis. 

"What's been happening since 27 March?"

Sepuloni replied, "You can expect an increase, that's for sure."

She said last week MSD received 22,500 benefit applications, but said some of them were duplicates and some applications may not be eligible, so it's not an accurate reflection of how many people have been approved since 27 March. 

Last week, 10,700 benefits were granted, the majority of which were Jobseeker benefits.

The minister revealed in earlier questioning that in contrast to some economists who have predicted up to 20 percent unemployment because of COVID-19, she's seen forecasts of around 5 percent to low double digits. 

She said on Friday MSD will publish weekly information about the Government's wage subsidy scheme, which has so far paid out more than $6 billion to more than 1 million people. 

"The data will be shown for the previous week, every Friday," she said. "The March quarterly benefit figures will be published Thursday 23 April as originally planned. We will revisit the need for weekly benefit data in due course."

Sepuloni said MSD has streamlined benefit application processes so that people can apply and be approved online or phone, with all service centres shut during lockdown. 

She said the MSD calling centres have been under huge pressure, with 107,539 phone calls answered last week, with an average of 95,000 to 100,000 people accessing the online service on most days. 

Sepuloni said 448,476 applications have been made for the wage subsidy scheme, with 14,000 declined because of incomplete applications or employees trying to apply when it has to be the employer. 

She said with 43,000 of the applications there was not enough information to process it, and said sole traders have been difficult to verify. 

MSD chief executive Debbie Power said about 3300 applications older than 10 days will be given priority, with about 350 staff working to process those applications. 

"Our focus has been on clearing the wage subsidy scheme."

She said in the first week, contact centres were under "enormous pressure", with 350,000 people trying to phone MSD. 

"It has got better. Normally we would expect average wait time of eight minutes, that shot up to 45 minutes in the first week, and now it's an average of 15 minutes with longest wait time of 30 minutes."