Opposition erupts after Jacinda Ardern defends allowing crowded shopping in Auckland but not outdoor dining

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was met with jeering in Parliament after she defended allowing crowded shopping at malls in Auckland but not socially distanced outdoor dining. 

Retail has been allowed in Auckland since last week when the city moved to alert level 3, step 2, which also allows public venues like museums to open. But hospitality must remain closed, even if it's socially distanced and outdoors. 

National leader Judith Collins asked Ardern in Parliament on Tuesday why "thousands of people are allowed to go shopping at Sylvia Park in Auckland but an Auckland restaurant cannot serve people in their outside dining area". 

Ardern replied: "Taken across as a whole, the profile of hospitality is just different to retail. And that's been recognised throughout this pandemic."

Her response was met with what House Speaker Trevor Mallard described as a "barrage from at least 15 members" of the Opposition. 

National MPs have been advocating on behalf of frustrated business owners. The New Zealand Companies Office Register shows more than 26,000 businesses have disappeared in the last eight months. 

Ardern said other nations have done the same. 

"You will not find a country around the world that I can think of that has treated hospitality and retail the same. In that vein, some countries have only recently allowed their hospitality services to reopen fully since February 2020," she said. 

"We've been in a vastly different set of circumstances. Yes, they've been at the frontline of restrictions, but when we move into the new Protection Framework, that is when the industry will have greater certainty and that will be part of our progress in our response to COVID."

The new COVID Protection Framework, or 'traffic light' system announced three weeks ago, was set to come into effect for Auckland once 90 percent of the eligible population was fully vaccinated. 

Under the traffic light system, freedoms will be determined by vaccine certificates. For example, when Auckland enters the 'red' light, hospitality venues can open with up to 100 fully vaccinated people, but businesses that choose not to use certificates must remain contactless. 

For the rest of the country, each district health board (DHB) would have to reach 90 percent. However, Ardern said on Monday she strongly supports an early move into the new framework, after she was advised it "provides greater protection" than the alert levels. 

Both Collins and ACT leader David Seymour have speculated that moving into the new traffic light system is held up by slow progress on vaccine certificates. 

"Is it not the real problem that the law and the software for the COVID Protection Framework are not ready yet and the vaccination rates are not the problem and she's just buying time for the software?" Seymour said in Parliament. 

Ardern strongly denied that's the case. 

"Absolutely not! In fact, one of the concerns is until you have high vaccination rates, if you choose to no longer use some of the blanket restrictions we've had available to us, there is concern that outbreaks - both because you don't have high enough vaccination rates and because you aren't using widespread restrictions - get out of control," she said. 

"That is why you have to have both good vaccination rates and a framework that utilises those vaccination rates to maximise the safety for the whole population."

Ardern said on Monday what's changed is that COVID-19 is spreading south. The Ministry of Health reported 20 cases in Waikato on Tuesday, as well as two in Wairarapa and 2 in Taupô. 

"What we also have to factor in, is if we are seeing the beginning of cases outside of Auckland, what gives us the greatest protection in that environment? And it's clear that the Protection Framework does that."

Alert level 2, she explained, allows vaccinated and unvaccinated people to attend an event at a venue with no gathering restrictions. But under the 'orange' traffic light, this will only apply to events using vaccination certificates.