Coronavirus: Jacinda Ardern says COVID-19 lockdown 'made all the difference' at saving NZ's economy

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has used her speech at this weekend's Labour Party congress to praise the "team of 5 million" that beat COVID-19.

She also discussed how New Zealand is set to reap the benefits of that success - and took a shot at high-profile dissenters who called for a different approach to lockdown.

New Zealand is one of only a few countries that has managed to stamp out its COVID-19 outbreak. Lately, the only cases in the country have been picked up at the border, with no evidence of community transmission despite thousands of tests being completed every day.

Overseas, the pandemic is accelerating, with more than 200,000 new infections being confirmed each day. The total number of confirmed cases in New Zealand stands at 1183. 

Ardern told supporters that "being unified" in our approach has worked. 

"When a terrorist tried to divide us we came together and we said 'they are us'. When a volcano erupted we threw our arms around those affected, whether they were from near or far.

"And when COVID arrived we didn't hesitate to act, knowing it was the only way to protect those around us. We stayed home.

"We stayed home, sometimes juggling care and work and kids and schooling. We stayed home despite not knowing if there would be a job to return to at the end of it or a business to re-open. We stayed home even when it meant we were separated from loved ones, sometimes in amongst grief and hardship. 

"We stayed home, and that made all the difference."

It's been 65 days since the last case of community transmission was recorded, Ardern said.

"That has meant we have been able to open up our economy sooner and more fully than most other places. It has given us opportunities that many others do not have... Through our health response, our plan was simple. Go hard, go early. That gave us the best position to save lives and livelihoods by opening up our economy sooner. 

"Had we chosen another path, if we'd chosen to have an ongoing tolerance of COVID and cases all around us in the community, I have no doubt we would still have restrictions in place that would be costing us in many, many ways."

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield and Jacinda Ardern.
Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield and Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty

She said the successful lockdown "gives us an economic head start, the ability to move from responding to COVID-19, to recovering and rebuilding".

Jobseeker support figures this week suggested unemployment was at about 6.3 percent, up from 4.2 percent at the start of the year - but Ardern pointed out in the US, where there has been little effort to lockdown, unemployment has blown out to 16 percent. 

"New Zealand is not immune to what is happening in the rest of the world, but we can buffer our people from it. And we can do that, because we were prepared."

Ardern focused most of her speech on the economy, detailing a "five-point plan" to get it humming again, defending the borrowing of tens of billions of dollars to pay for it.

"If we choose not to invest now, during the rainy day we have been preparing for, we burden the future with debt of another kind... I am a child of the '80s and '90s. I have seen responses to troubled times that have failed to take this into account, and have left people behind. We see the impacts of that still. Poverty, inequality, persistent unemployment. 

"It does not have to be this way, and under Labour, it won't."

 The first point is "investing in our people", Ardern citing a $1.6 billion investment in trades and apprenticeships, and vocational training. 

"But retraining isn't enough if there aren't jobs to go into at the end of it. And this is where the second part of our plan kicks in, what I like to simply call, jobs, jobs, jobs."

Ardern went over the Government's already-announced investments into "road, rail, public transport, school and health capital funding", as well as housing and other infrastructure. 

New announcements were made regarding jobs in cleaning up the country's waterways.

The third point Ardern went over was "preparing for the future". 

"Restoring our environment is one thing, decarbonising it is another. Investments in waste management and improving energy generation will be key - and this is where I am signalling there is more to come. 

"Preparing for the future also means supporting our businesses to innovate, especially as we go through a period of digital transformation... We want to support our small businesses through this digital transition, which is why we established a $10 million fund to incentivise e-commerce and train more digital advisors.

"It's also why we will keep encouraging innovation in all forms. So we've created a $150 million fund to provide loans to R&D-intensive businesses."

The fourth part focuses on small businesses and job creators, Ardern said, going over the existing wage subsidy scheme and announcing an extension of the small business loan scheme.

"To all those businesses who passed on that wage subsidy and provided that shelter to others, who worked so hard and gave so much to help over 1.6 million New Zealanders people put food on the table - nga mihi maioha to you."

Lastly, Ardern said the Government wants to "continue to position New Zealand globally as a place to trade with, to invest in, and eventually to visit again".

"Since February 1, our merchandise exports to the rest of the world have kept pace with last year's, which is incredible during one of the biggest global recessions the world economy has seen," she said, going over funding and initiatives the Government has previously announced. 

She finished by praising the "team of 5 million" again.

"There wasn't a playbook for COVID. There wasn't a play book for the recovery. And speaking frankly, there hasn't been one for much of what has happened this term. 

"But as a team of 5 million we have achieved so much anyway. We have shown grit and determination. We have shown unity. We have shown a commitment to supporting one another. 

 "And Labour has been there every step of the way."