Coronavirus: Sir John Key says business response to COVID-19 plan 'overwhelming positive', swats away criticism from 'Twitter'

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Sir John Key says business reaction to his recent COVID-19 plan has been "overwhelmingly positive" while criticism from the "left on Twitter" doesn't concern him.

Sir John released an opinion piece last week, which was published by Newshub, saying the Government needed to shift its thinking towards opening New Zealand up to the world, declaring there has been "no coherent plan" shared with Kiwis about when this might happen. He said officials had done a good job "of making the public fearful" and willing to "accept multiple restrictions". 

The former Prime Minister provided five points on how to increase vaccination rates and reconnect with the world, including giving people money if they get vaccinated by December and providing a date for when borders will reopen. 

The piece was criticised by some for referring to New Zealand as a "smug hermit kingdom", while the Government said some of Sir John's ideas were already being worked on.

Speaking to the trans-Tasman Business Circle on Friday, Sir John said the response to his piece from the business community had been "overwhelmingly positive". He noted there were some on "the left in the media or the left on Twitter" who disagreed with his COVID-19 thoughts, but that was likely to happen whatever he said "so it won't slow me down". 

While measures like the wage subsidy and the recent immigration announcement help businesses during this time, Sir John said many are in "a lot of pain". 

"One thing I know about business and one thing that was reflected to me with the enormous outpouring of messages to me on Sunday and Monday was that business want certainty," he said.

"They do want exactly what I was talking about; a date when the borders are going to open, they want far more than just a trial for being able to operate overseas. We live in a global world."

On Friday, Finance Minister Grant Robertson said $3.3 billion has been paid out through the wage subsidy during this outbreak, while $914 million has gone out through the Resurgency Support Payment, to help with fixed costs. Some sectors, particularly hospitality, have called for more targeted support, while the tourism sector is looking for the wage subsidy to continue at alert level 2 if Auckland's boundary remains when the region reaches that level.

Sir John said on Friday that businesses would agree with him that "ultimately we have to learn to live with COVID" and that more of both the carrot and the stick was needed to incentivise people to get vaccinated in the meantime. 

He also wants to see the private sector engaged more heavily with things like MIQ facilities, saliva testing and track and tracing. Overseas, he said, private companies are working closely with governments and "the outcomes and results are better".

Sir John said he has heard business leaders get "pretty decent engagement from the PM" but hit a brick wall when "they get into the bureaucracy". 

"It really is making sure that we collectively actually join hands and we embrace ideas, and we're not afraid of the fact that even if someone makes a dollar out of it because I tell you what, it might save us one hell of a lot of other dollars we're spending propping up the economy while we can't operate in the way we used to operate."

He admitted thinking at the start of the pandemic that "we would deal with it pretty quickly" and come up with a solution to ensure normality could be restored. 

"I think, if anything, now that we have all learnt that this is far more complicated, not easy to deal with, has many different twists and turns in the road."

While he thinks with the right mix of vaccines, other medical treatments and an investment in healthcare, "we can deal with COVID-19", we will be facing a new way of operating "for quite a period of time".

"I think all of us need to be realistic about that". 

National, the party Sir John led, released its COVID-19 plan on Wednesday, setting vaccination targets for when it would restart international travel and end lockdowns. 

In responding to National's claims the Government has no plan for reopening, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and other ministers have pointed to the Reconnecting New Zealanders document released in August.

That sets out steps towards travel when there is "high coverage of vaccine", but doesn't provide any specific dates or targets. Part of that is a trial for about 150 business people and officials to isolate at home rather than at MIQs after returning to New Zealand. It was announced this week that that will start later this month.

The Government has signalled it wants to see New Zealand surpass the 90 percent vaccinated mark before lockdowns and other harsh restrictions become a thing of the past. As of Saturday, 46 percent of the eligible 12+ population is fully vaccinated, while 78 percent have had their first dose.