Simon Bridges' focus on health of New Zealanders, not election, in 'wartime-type situation'

coronavirus 01/04/2020

With voting scheduled for September, now would usually be the time for parties to begin revealing slithers of the policies they would introduce if elected into power. National had already begun that earlier this year, including with its promise of a bonfire of regulations and a form of tax relief.

But those plans have now been put on the back-burner, with the country in lockdown as a means of limiting the public's exposure to people with COVID-19, the illness caused by the infectious SARS-CoV-2 virus. The spread of the virus, which has infected more than 820,000 worldwide and killed nearly 40,000, has decimated economies and required gigantic economic recovery packages to be announced by governments.

Last week National put its election campaign on hold and Bridges told The AM Show on Wednesday that his focus is on the health of Kiwis.

"I genuinely think, and I think we agree with the Government entirely on this, we are in a wartime-type situation. There is nothing else other than COVID-19. We are not seeing other legislation in Parliament. Parliament is not even sitting. I can't think of that happening before in a situation like this," he said.

"We will worry about an election and politics and business as usual, to the extent we can, after that. But that's certainly not something that is my focus today. It is the health and the wealth of New Zealanders."

Bridges said the policies National had planned to enact if elected will change and promised a bolder package.

"When the facts change, I change, and there is no doubt that the facts have changed," he told The AM Show.

"In the here-and-now, it is actually quite simple fundamentally. We need to keep businesses going and workers in their job.

"Once we come out of COVID-19, strictly speaking, and the reality is it will be years to do that, how do we get ourselves back stronger? What is the stimulus and the programme that is required? I have in the past had our five-point plan, regulatory reform, tax relief, infrastructure… I think if anything it becomes bolder."

The specifics of that new plan won't be worked out for weeks, he said.

The leader also reiterated his call for the rise to the minimum wage, which happens from Wednesday, to be jettisoned, something multiple business advocacy groups from around the country agree with. 

"There is no point in having a minimum wage increase if you haven't got a job," he said.

Special committee

At the moment, a large chunk of Bridges' time will be spent chairing the special Epidemic Response Committee, which was established to hold officials to account for their response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Tuesday, the first day experts appeared before the committee, was focussed on the health side of the response, with the likes of Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield and Minister of Health Dr David Clark featuring. 

"I think it is achieving its purpose on day one, which is to approve the Government's response, the nation's response to COVID-19," Bridges said. 

"Constructive is the word. We want to provide constructive scrutiny."

The National Party leader said his party had long been calling for a broadening of COVID-19 testing criteria, something that was discussed at length at the committee with epidemiologist Professor Sir David Skegg. 

Sir David advised that more needed to be done to eradicate COVID-19 from the country than just imposing the lockdown. He said greater testing was necessary to understand how widespread community transmission - where an infected individual doesn't know who they contracted the illness from - was.

Later in the day, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 could be tested, a move away from primarily testing those with symptoms and a link to overseas travel or a confirmed/probable case.

Bridges was pleased to see the movement.

"We have been putting the case that if you go to a doctor and you have got the symptoms and the doctor says that you should be tested, hey, you know what, you should be. So we are seeing some movement on that as well."

The nature of community transmission in New Zealand will become extremely important in the coming weeks as authorities determine whether to extend the nationwide lockdown. It's believed the current restrictions could continue if there is community transmission across the country. However, if that transmission is limited to only some regions, those specific areas may be the only places kept under alert level 4.

Modelling provided to the Government, and mirrored by work overseas, shows that the length of intensive measures and degree to which contact between people is reduced will have a significant impact on the number of hospitalisations and death.

What we know about coronavirus

The World Health Organization (WHO) was first notified of cases of the virus SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2) in Wuhan, China on December 31. It was identified as a coronavirus on January 7 and can spread via human-to-human transmission. It causes the coronavirus COVID-19 illness.

The virus is primarily spread through droplets in the air after someone sneezes or coughs, however, it can also be contracted by touching surfaces where the illness is present. The length of time the virus stays alive on surfaces isn't fully understood, but some studies have suggested that on some materials it could be for days.

"Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death," the WHO says.

"Standard recommendations to prevent infection spread include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing."

There is currently no vaccine for the sickness.

How can I protect myself? 

  • avoid touching the mouth, nose and eyes with unwashed hands
  • washing your hands before eating
  • carrying a hand sanitiser at all times
  • being particularly mindful of touching your face after using public transport or going to the airport
  • carry tissues at all times to cover the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing (then dispose of it)
  • not eating shared or communal food
  • avoiding shaking hands, kissing cheeks
  • regularly cleaning and sanitise commonly used surfaces and items, such as phones and keys
  • avoiding close contact with people suffering from or showing symptoms of acute respiratory infection
  • seeking medical attention if you feel unwell.