Jacinda Ardern demands 'absolute focus' from Labour MPs in first speech of 2021 dominated by COVID-19

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has demanded "absolute focus" from Labour MPs in her first speech of 2021, in which she foreshadowed a year dominated by COVID-19 and vaccines. 

"Our job is to get us through this year and the worst health and economic crisis of our lifetime," the Labour leader told her MPs in Nelson on Thursday at the party's caucus retreat, before the political year kicks off. 

Ardern began her first speech of the year by reflecting on the summer break and how she found it difficult to switch off from politics when New Zealanders' alert level 1 freedom could have come crashing down with another outbreak. 

"I was holding my breath," Ardern said, adding that it wasn't until after New Year's Eve that she was able to relax knowing that Kiwis had at least made it through Christmas and New Year celebrations with their freedoms. 

Ardern's speech was heavily focused on COVID-19 and how, despite Labour winning a stunning majority in October with the power to implement its agenda, the Government will have to navigate another year dominated by the pandemic. 

"We're seeing the virus do what a virus does - change."

Ardern's speech had a different tone to last year's, in which she called for a "factual" election campaign and promised a huge infrastructure spend-up.

Looking to the year ahead, Ardern said 2021 will be the "year of the vaccine". 

She reiterated the Government's goal of immunising frontline workers in the first quarter of the year and then rolling out a mass vaccination programme in the latter half. 

She said the long-term goal is for COVID-19 to be treated like the flu, with yearly vaccination programmes, as the virus mutates. 

The Prime Minister will provide an update on the Government's vaccination programme at her first post-Cabinet press conference next week. 

Ardern said the challenge for Labour this year will be maintaining the massive work programme of keeping people safe, but also the economic recovery, and Labour's promises to New Zealanders such as fixing the housing crisis and looking after the environment. 

She said New Zealand's economic recovery has "surprised" many. 

"Those headline figures you will have seen, all of the indications are bucking many of the assumptions that were made around where we would be economically in the aftermath of COVID," Ardern said. 

"The recovery I think has even surprised many of us. It has been exceptional. But that has been by design. You always heard us say that our view was to go hard and go early so that we can recover fast and that is certainly what we've seen from some of those early numbers."

She pointed to the 5.3 percent unemployment rate, which defied some initial forecasts that it could rise above 10 percent as a result of COVID-19. 

"Our goal has to be keeping us on that trajectory," Ardern said, adding that tax-take has been positive across every category, which she joked was "pleasing" for Finance Minister Grant Robertson. 

On fixing the housing crisis, with the median asking price in Auckland now $1 million, Ardern said it will take a range of solutions. 

"You'll see I hope, that we are looking across a broad suite of areas to create the change that we need for that next generation in our housing market."

On the environment, Ardern said announcements will come next week. 

"Now that we've laid the foundations for our climate work, the action that's required to make sure that we fulfil the carbon budgets that will be coming our way this year."

Ardern concluded by asking her caucus of 65 to stay focused and help get New Zealanders through another big year. 

"We have a very big year ahead of us. None of us want those really important issues that we all feel so deeply about to be side-lined by the pandemic, and so our job is to make sure that we do everything we can to stay on top of it alongside the team of 5 million, recognising how hard that is and that it takes work and that it is a team effort," she said. 

"I need your absolute focus."