NZ Election 2020: Judith Collins, Jacinda Ardern have fiery clash over New Zealand's COVID-19 response

Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins clashed over New Zealand's COVID-19 response in the Newshub election debate.

The Labour and National leaders went head-to-head in the Leaders Debate on Wednesday night, and the first topic of the evening was the country's COVID-19 response.

The pair were given a hypothetical scenario and were asked how they would act if a community outbreak occurred in Christchurch at Christmas time.

Collins said she would lock down a city if there was an outbreak, and she touted National's proposed border protection agency.

But she added if the outbreak was in Christchurch, she would lock down just the city and not the whole South Island.

Ardern said she would do the same as she did with the outbreak in Auckland - a "short" lockdown. Ardern also stuck by putting the whole country into alert level 2 even if the outbreak is only in one city, because officials need time to assess the spread.

Collins disagreed with Ardern's approach.

"I would be very concerned to do that [go as far as Ardern]. And the reason I'd be concerned about doing that would be that not only does it lock down the country, it locks down the economy, but also, as we saw with the last lockdown in Auckland, that also affected the South Island," she said.

"There was no community spread in the South Island and they still suffered."

Ardern said she understands the advice and evidence from health officials because "I've read it and I know it well".

"The advice and evidence is that there's a very high chance of spread outside a singular city if you've not yet identified the source of the outbreak," she said.

"To make a decision like that, sadly purely on what would be at that time, I'm sure, significant public pressure, which comes in this job, to make a decision like that would put people at risk. To do anything other than to first establish spread would be dangerous, would be risky, and that's what I'm hearing here."

The topic then turned to opening a Pacific travel bubble. Collins said Samoa closed its borders a month before New Zealand, and Ardern interjected saying New Zealand was one of the earliest countries to close its borders.

"Ms Ardern, you've had your turn. Manners," Collins shot back in response.

Collins wouldn't give a date to opening a Pacific bubble, but she would do it "once it's safe". Ardern didn't give a date either.

Ardern took aim at National's border protection policy, and said if it were that easy to establish a border force to keep COVID-19 out, "every country in the world would do it".

"COVID is much trickier than the leader of the Opposition is giving any credit to, or credit to New Zealand and this entire team for the work they have done to establish themselves as world-leading in our response."

She also hit out at Collins' policy of a test before you fly because people will still be able to carry the virus without it being detected.

Collins said she would open the border to international students and tourists once the border protection agency was in place, the test before you fly regime was set up and once it was safe to do so.