Winston Peters on coronavirus: 'No value' in saving people if social cost is 'far greater'

The Deputy Prime Minister says there is a "balance" to be struck in dealing with COVID-19, between listening to health experts and facing the realities of an economic downturn. 

The Government is set to announce whether New Zealand will be lifted out of the alert level 4 lockdown and brought into the lighter alert level 3, which will allow some businesses to return to operation. 

Winston Peters, when asked by Newstalk ZB if the alert level should be dropped, said the economic cost of keeping the nation in lockdown must be considered alongside health advice.

"It would be of no value if we save a lot of COVID people in our approach - and yet during it we've got all sorts of things like depression, suicide, breakdowns and a whole lot of other social things having far greater social damage."

Peters said there is a "big picture there and it's about balance" and that "in the end, the thing that's going to save us is not just medical expertise, it is an economy that provides the utilities to face this crisis". 

"I know all the conflicting opinion there is there but if we're to make the right decision, and to be prudent about that decision, we need to have a serious discussion about all the information that can be assembled at one time before the decision is made."

Peters admitted the Government would like to have more information available to make the decision, but the reality is COVID-19 is a new disease and the world is learning more about it each passing day. 

"Would we like more information? Of course we would. Would we like certainty that there are no snags coming in the future as to the decision we make? Of course we would. But we've got to deal with the here and now with the best information we've got and the experts we've got."

It comes as more than $9 billion has been paid out by the Government so far to subsidise the wages of more than a million Kiwis who are not able to work during the lockdown. 

As the Government pays out billions of dollars to support Kiwis, with billions more expected to come, the Government is also facing a spike in the number of people seeking the benefit with alarming unemployment modelling released by Treasury. 

As Cabinet weighs up whether to move New Zealand into alert level 3, some critics have questioned the strictness of the guidelines, with retail stores not allowed to open, haircuts prohibited, travel restrictions still in place, and a ban on boating. 

Takeaway joints will be allowed to deliver, however, which prompted National MP Judith Collins to describe alert level 3 as "a lot like level 4 but with KFC". 

Peters described Collins' remarks as "rather sad" and "disappointing". 

"You can be political about it, as Judith is and that's rather sad, but the fact of the matter is, of course level 3 is different from the concept we're in today... To say it's just level 4 with KFC when in fact level 3 is 500,000 more people back to work."

Peters also shot back at critics who say the Government overreacted to the pandemic because Australia allowed retail and manufacturing to continue and still managed to keep cases and deaths relatively low.  

"We're not in a competition - we're here to try and make it work," Peters said. 

"So if Australia's doing great, fantastic, but we're handling a country called New Zealand and our job is to ensure we have done the best we possibly could with the information we have available."