National MP Hamish Walker's "racist" remarks about plans for managed isolation facilities in Queenstown have earned him rebukes from Todd Muller and Jacinda Ardern - but a local doctor says he was just doing his job.
Walker, MP for Clutha-Southland, said in a statement on Thursday that up to 11,000 people arriving from India, Pakistan and Korea could be destined for quarantine in the south without any consultation with the community.
"It's absolutely disgraceful that the community hasn't been consulted on this," he said. "These people are possibly heading for Dunedin, Invercargill and Queenstown from India, Pakistan and Korea."
The minister in charge of managed isolation facilities, Megan Woods, blasted Walker for singling out arrivals from Asian countries, describing his comments to RNZ as "disgraceful", "reprehensible" and "racist".
National leader Todd Muller told reporters on Friday he spoke to Walker and expressed his "disappointment" - but he stopped short of describing the remarks as racist.
"I expressed my disappointment and certainly don't condone what he said... I've had the conversation with Hamish [and] expressed my concern."
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she found the MP's comments "inappropriate".
"We need to make sure that we are welcoming the return of our permanent residents and our Kiwi citizens. The response we've had from a number of those centres that have been hosting is that they see this as the return of their people in their community and we should treat it as such."
But Queenstown Lakes District Councillor Dr Valerie Miller, who is also a senior GP at the Wakatipu Medical Centre, said Walker was just doing his job by trying to keep the community safe.
"I don't think that's a racist thing. He wasn't talking about people - he was talking about countries that have a high incidence of COVID... He was thinking of the welfare of the community," Dr Miller told Magic Talk.
"At a time when we can have some business happening with people traveling throughout New Zealand to come here and take advantage of skiing, the last thing we want to do is frighten them away or not be able to provide medical services if they're injured."
The Government announced earlier this week it was looking to Queenstown and Dunedin as potential destinations for managed isolation facilities.
Walker has rejected that the comments were racist, and said he had received calls, texts and emails from residents who did not want people quarantined in Queenstown.
"I know for a fact Queenstown does not have sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) to undertake this."
Dr Woods said the returnees are citizens and permanent residents who need somewhere safe to stay upon their arrival to ensure that COVID-19 is not spread in the community.
She questioned how Walker came up with the 11,000 people figure.
Dr Miller said she was told via a local hospital that there could be 11,000 people spread throughout the region. She said she heard "whispers" about a managed isolation facility being set up in Queenstown from other councillors.
"We just simply don't have the capacity here in Queenstown to deal with isolating people that have been in contact and still run a service," she said. "At this time of the year, when we have an influx of visitors to the region for skiing, the hospital becomes extremely busy. They have all the injuries that come down off the mountain.
"If they are then being exposed potentially to people with infection, it'll be a complete disaster in our area - we don't have a big enough hospital to have any sort of division between people with the disease and people who are symptom-free."
There is currently no community transmission of COVID-19 in New Zealand. There were no new cases reported on Friday, so the total number of active cases remains at 18 - all of which are in managed isolation or quarantine facilities.
International data shows the current top five countries with the most active cases are the United States, Brazil, Russia, India and the UK, respectively.