Jacinda Ardern predicts 'difficult' years ahead as COVID-19 cases reach levels 'not seen since the first wave'

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is predicting "very difficult" years ahead as COVID-19 infections reach levels "not seen since the first wave" with global deaths now topping 1.2 million. 

The Prime Minister delivered a speech to the business community in Auckland on Thursday during which she reflected on how the emergence of COVID-19 has "exacerbated" the political divide, pointing to the US election. 

"Yesterday, like many of you, I watched the results of the US election roll in, and I couldn't help but reflect on our own elections in recent years," Ardern said. "I'm very aware that I'm speaking with you at a time when New Zealand feels like a calm oasis in a chaotic and difficult world."

As US President Donald Trump fights to hold power in the US, going so far as to label the election voting system fraudulent, Ardern acknowledged that the world has become "increasingly divided".

"From where I sit it feels as though we have a borderless world for things like trade and the exchange of people and skills, and yet, rather than this leading to people being exposed to new and different ideas and ways of thinking, the advent of technology and the creation of online platforms has led us instead to find and build our tribes to entrench our existing views."

Ardern noted her concern about people locking in their opinions and reinforcing them, rather than allowing themselves to be questioned and have their perspectives tested. 

"The emergence of a global pandemic over the past year has undoubtedly exacerbated these issues. There is no question that there are certain facts about a pandemic that are just that - facts. Where the debate exists is the space between those facts, and the strategy a country and its leaders choose to deploy in the face of them."

Ardern has been widely praised for her response to COVID-19, which included a strict lockdown during March and April during which all New Zealanders had to stay home and only essential businesses were able to operate. 

The lockdown delivered more than 100 days free of community cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand, until it returned in August, sending the city into a three-week level 3 lockdown while the rest of the country was put under lighter restrictions. 

New Zealanders now enjoy alert level 1 settings, despite community cases popping up here and there - the latest a managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) worker in Christchurch. 

"Recent transmission of the virus at the border has been picked up early, ring-fenced and prevented from spreading," Ardern said. "But ongoing vigilance is absolutely key - every single day."

Ardern told the business community she does not regret her cautious approach to managing COVID-19 because it has delivered the freedoms Kiwis get to enjoy today while many other nations are going back into lockdowns. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking to the business community in Auckland.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking to the business community in Auckland. Photo credit: Getty

"It was a choice, but one that I strongly believe has served us well, and that New Zealanders have for the most part, supported. That support has also been key. And the importance of consensus-building has only been reinforced for me as a leader through this experience," she said. 

"And while we are in the midst of this ongoing crisis, and will be for some time, there are encouraging signs that reinforce the choices we've made."

She pointed to the 5.3 percent unemployment figure released this week which is below the more than 9 percent prediction in the Budget, and is lower than Australia at 6.9 percent.

The Prime Minister said she is "all too aware" that New Zealand will not be spared the ongoing effects of the global pandemic, but promised to preserve the country's freedom. 

"COVID-19 is raging in Europe. We are seeing levels of infection not seen since the first wave, and the return of lockdowns in many places. Sweden has announced social gathering limits and some time ago asked its population to prepare to work from home for six months," she said. 

"The UK, Germany, France and other parts of Europe are under restrictions again. It is unquestionably tough out there. And while that is the case, it will be tough here too.

"In fact, the coming years will be very difficult with the global growth forecasts showing the impact of the virus is going to be with New Zealand for some time - both in terms of managing its spread but also recovering from its economic impact."

Ardern said that's why her new Government's focus will be continuing the health response to keep Kiwis safe from COVID-19 and driving economic recovery. This, she said, is reflected in the new Minister for COVID-19 Response role she gave to Chris Hipkins. 

Ardern said the Government's economic priorities before Christmas will be extending the small business loan scheme, rolling out the flexi-wage support programme, fast-tracking more infrastructure projects, and drafting legislation to increase sick leave to 10 days. 

"We will from time to time have different opinions. We may disagree on strategies or goals, but so long as we are able to continue our dialogue, recognise that we have the same ambition for New Zealand, we will find a way through difficult situations and challenges in a way that will stand us in good stead for the future." 

Ardern said the rollout out of COVID-19 vaccines is likely to begin in earnest next year. The Government has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into advanced purchase arrangements.