Coronavirus: Jacinda Ardern reminds struggling South Island businesses they can apply for wage subsidy even at level 2

Jacinda Ardern says businesses in the South Island struggling to keep staff on should know they can still apply for the wage subsidy even at level 2.

There has been frustration from some outside of Auckland at the new restrictions on level 2,  taking into account the increased ability of the Delta variant of COVID-19 to spread. 

Masks will be mandatory inside more public venues, and there will be a limit of 50 people for indoor gatherings and events - down from 100 previously. Outdoor gatherings will be limited to 100. 

"There has been a degree of frustration in this community, we haven't had COVID here since we went into lockdown," Leeann Watson, chief executive of the Canterbury Chamber of Commerce, told Newshub after the new rules were revealed on Monday.

Steve Pomeroy, owner of Christchurch's Pomeroy's Old Brewery Inn, told Newshub it wouldn't be enough to keep all the staff employed. 

"We will have to let some staff go because we could be in this for months."

Ardern told The AM Show on Tuesday large venues with both indoor and outdoor areas could have up to 150 people - 100 outside, 50 inside - and staff don't count towards these totals. Those inside will have to wear masks, except when they're eating and drinking. 

"The thing we've learned about Delta is when you're in those indoor environments - particularly when they've got average ventilation - we know it increases the risk. That's why we've just tried to encourage people [to wear masks]. 

"But we're being pragmatic. In hospitality environments when you're eating and drinking, we haven't required it there. That's where instead we're supplementing it by asking everyone to scan in those environments. If you don't have to wear a mask, generally we're asking you to scan instead."

She said employers might not know they can still apply for the wage subsidy under level 2.

"People who are in the South Island in that level 2 environment are still eligible to apply for the wage subsidy with the usual criteria," she explained. "They could get it… you do not have to be [in level 3 or 4]. If any part of the country is at level 3 or 4, someone can apply for the wage subsidy. 

"So yes, in the South Island if you still fit the criteria of having had that revenue decline, then you are eligible for the wage subsidy. I have heard people in hospitality who haven't been aware of that." 

Jacinda Ardern on The AM Show.
Jacinda Ardern on The AM Show. Photo credit: The AM Show

Though Aucklanders are unable to travel outside of the city for leisure at present, it's not clear how many businesses in the South Island will be eligible - the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment website says to qualify, "your business must have been affected by the continuation of alert level 3 or 4". From Wednesday, that will be only Auckland. 

The Resurgence Support Payment to help businesses with fixed costs has to date been a one-off boost of up to $21,500 "when there is an increase to alert level 2 or higher for a week or more", according to the Unite Against COVID-19 website. 

Ardern said with level 2 likely to last "a bit longer than we have in the past", the Government is considering changing it so businesses can apply more than once. 

But there are no plans to keep any part of the country at level 2 longer than is necessary, she said.

"Our public health experts have said they do intend to keep - as soon as we're able to - moving through the levels. It's not a matter of people in parts of the country having to be in this level 2 environment forever - we do intend to continue to move."

Whether alert level 1 is a free-for-all like we enjoyed before Delta remains to be seen.

"I'm not sure if we'll ever get back quite to the level of freedom we've had for much of the last 18 months because the world has changed," epidemiologist Michael Baker told The AM Show earlier on Tuesday morning. 

"The level of risk has risen but, certainly, we should go back to something that resembles that [level 1] in terms of our ability to mix and so-on. If there's no virus in New Zealand, then we can be a lot freer."

New Zealand's elimination of the earlier strains of the virus and the generous wage subsidy has been credited with the booming economy over the past year, with unemployment dropping to pre-pandemic levels in a matter of months.