Sir John Key hits out at 'self-congratulatory' Jacinda Ardern as Michael Baker calls former PM's criticism 'simplistic'

Former Prime Minister Sir John Key is doubling down on his criticism of the Government and its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sir John, who wrote a column published on Sunday describing New Zealand as a "smug hermit kingdom", says health officials and the Government are peddling fear around COVID-19 - which he believes doesn't work. 

"That was assumably the reason why [Prime Minister] Jacinda [Ardern] got Shaun Hendy out on Thursday to tell us 'an enormous number of people could die if we don't get vaccinated,'" Sir John told The AM Show.  "Fear and hope are not a strategy. They don't actually work and if you don't believe me, go down to the local dairy and have a look at a packet of cigarettes - the health officials want you to have pictures on those of people's organs eaten away by cancer - that doesn't work."

Studies have shown up to 70 percent of teenage smokers who quit were influenced by warning images on cigarette packets.

In his column published by New Zealand media outlets including Newshub, he said Kiwis should no longer be living "in a smug hermit kingdom but to get back to a life where New Zealanders can travel overseas - for any reason - knowing they can return home when they want to, and where we again welcome visitors to this country".

Health expert Michael Baker said that view is "simplistic" - and things aren't that easy.

"There are very few countries that have, suddenly, just flung open the borders and said, 'we've got no restrictions anymore,'" said Prof Baker, an epidemiologist from the University of Otago. "That is one of the problems I always have with broad things like that."

But Sir John said on Monday that New Zealanders needed a plan.

"What we need is some carrots and sticks in the system. If you go to young people who, frankly, are under no pressure to go and get vaccinated, go and tell them, 'I tell you what, you can't go to Rhythm n Vines, you can't go to a nightclub, you can't go to a bar, you can't get on the Air New Zealand flight' - go and see how many of them still think spoons can stick to their left arm when they're getting the vaccine.

"We can't afford to keep doing what we're doing, that's the simple truth of it."

Sir John said getting back to normal would require the Government not turning to "the easiest thing to do" of locking down.

"We have had COVID-19 around for 18 months now - the Prime Minister gets up at a press conference in a self-congratulatory way and says, 'Oh, it's great, we locked you down really hard and fast.'

"When you're Prime Minister, stopping things is the easiest thing to do. It's like saying, 'I'm Prime Minister, I want to congratulate myself because I've all made you pay more tax.'

"The reason we locked down hard is that we failed to buy the vaccines when we were offered… the lockdown's been costing us $1 billion, sometimes more, a week.

"I know for a fact - over time when interest rates go up, the future Ministers of Finance will one day get up and say to the New Zealand people - 'by the way, that latest drug, those more police, those various different things you want, we can't afford those.'"

Appearing on The AM Show after Sir John, Ardern said the former Prime Minister is wrong in saying the Government doesn't have a strategy.

"Hope and luck have not got us the lowest case numbers in the OECD, the lowest death rates, an economy that returned to pre-COVID levels, low unemployment even outside of a pandemic and, might I say, some the fewest restrictions that any country has experienced," Ardern said.

She said that came down to a plan, not luck.

"It was a plan that every single New Zealander has played a role in and our plan going forward is to continue to use the best evidence and international advice that we can as we roll out the next stage."