Coronavirus: Finance Minister Grant Robertson probed on how much money is left in COVID-19 coffer

Despite documents showing about $5 billion left in the Government's COVID-19 fund, Finance Minister Grant Robertson says there is "more than enough" money to get by. 

The Government unveiled a $50 billion COVID Response and Recovery Fund last year to help pay for things related to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the wage subsidy scheme and vaccinations. 

But the latest financial update showed there was about $5 billion left, after millions of dollars from the COVID-19 fund was spent on the likes of school lunches, cameras on fishing boats and KiwiBuild

Robertson, appearing before the Finance and Expenditure Committee via Zoom on Tuesday while Parliament is suspended for the week, came under scrutiny over the spending. 

"I'm trying on behalf of the taxpayer to understand how much more money you may need to spend on their behalf," National MP Michael Woodhouse said. 

ACT leader David Seymour asked Robertson: "Did you spend so much of the money on things such as $4 billion on housing and half a billion on free school lunches because people weren't expecting a Delta outbreak?" 

"No, I wouldn't put it that way," Robertson said, arguing that the "vast bulk" of money in the COVID-19 fund has been spent on social support schemes related to lockdowns and health related stuff like vaccines. 

"That is the main focus of the fund, it always has been and it always will be."

Robertson explained how despite documents showing about $5 billion left in the COVID-19 fund, there is also significant underspend. There's another $2 billion from the small business cash flow loan scheme that hasn't been used. 

He said tax intake is also about $6 billion better off than expected.

And if lockdown does stretch beyond expectations, there's $35 billion available from the Imprest Supply Bill, which gives the Government authority to spend money in advance of it being officially allocated, which is coming up in September. 

Seymour is concerned about the Government's COVID-19 fund running dry. 

"You've got $5 billion left, you're burning a billion and a half for every week of lockdown, that means you've got about four weeks left before you've got to look elsewhere for money.

"You say that you've got $35 billion in Imprest Supply. What are you going to cut out of that, that that was supposed to be spent on, and if you can't do that, are you going to borrow more and how much?"

But Robertson is confident the Government can cope. 

"Obviously I don't look at it that way," he said.

"Do we have enough money to pay out the wage subsidy scheme? The answer is yes, we have sufficient money to pay for it for some considerable time before we would ever need to go back to Parliament to appropriate more money.

"The economy is in a very strong position, we have the ability to be able to manage this for any length of time that it goes for, but for the current period we are in now we have more than enough resources available."

Robertson also pushed back on criticism the Government used the COVID-19 fund to spend it on things that weren't coronavirus-related. 

He noted that during the election campaign, the National Party was proposing to spend the fund on non-coronavirus related issues too, such as roads, which he criticised at the time.

"Many of the decisions that were made about the fund were obviously made in May 2020. If we then fast forward to the election campaign around August/September, at that point we had retained about $12 billion within the fund.

"We were all thinking slightly differently at that time last year, but we did put money aside and we do have money available and we have reprioritised.

"That's probably worth noting, that in the Budget process we went through this year, we actually went back through the COVID fund and reprioritised around a billion dollars worth of that back in so that we had more resources available."

Robertson revealed that about $480 million has been paid out so far from the wage subsidy scheme during the latest outbreak, and more than 127,000 businesses have had their applications approved. 

He promised not to cut into core services if money runs out. 

"We will make sure that the support New Zealanders need is available because that's what worked. The economy rebounded."