PM hits back at Key over 'smug hermit kingdom' comments

Sir John Key and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ
Sir John Key and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has hit back at Sir John Key's suggestions that the Government is using fear as a motivator for people to get vaccinated - and that Kiwis are living in a "smug hermit kingdom".

Key doubled down this morning on his comments in The New Zealand Herald yesterday, criticising the Government's Covid-19 response, saying "fear and hope are not a strategy".

The former Prime Minister said he was speaking out after people were telling him they were "quietly going broke" during the latest lockdown. He told Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking that his aim was to change the thinking.

Writing in the Herald yesterday, Key called for financial incentives instead of fear tactics to increase vaccination numbers.

"The aim should no longer be to exist 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".

Key told Hosking that a number of people were approaching him who had businesses that were quietly going broke and that people should listen to the health advice in a measured way - but fear and strategy were not a proper approach.

He cited cigarette packaging - the scary photos didn't work, but putting the price up did.

He believed New Zealand couldn't carry on doing what it was doing - it had to reopen. "We actually need to come up with some tension resilience and get people vaccinated."

And in an interview with RNZ's Morning Report today, he said it was not over-the-top to liken New Zealand to North Korea, as he has.

"The Government has had 18 months of Covid to come up with a coherent plan. What they've managed to do is make people fearful. Fear worries the vaccinated, which is why they got vaccinated."

He said there had to be a "tension system" in place; the Government needed to state definite dates of opening and incentivise vaccinations.

"I made it really clear that if you want to get vaccination rates up to a level, you cannot do that by doing what the government is doing, which is no plan and no clear strategy of when we're doing these things.

"If you want to get the young people who are not being vaccinated to be vaccinated, take away some of their rights: Rhythm and Vines, nightclubs, bars, Air New Zealand flights - very quickly you will find that those young people will be vaccinated."

He believed the Government did not have a plan about opening borders and fixing the managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) system which is leaving many New Zealanders "stateless".

"All they have actually done is lock us down ... any Prime Minister can do that."

Not luck - that was a plan: PM

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told The Am Show today that Key was wrong as "hope and luck" had not got the country the lowest case number in the OECD, the lowest death rates, an economy that returned to pre-Covid levels and some of the fewest restrictions any country had experienced.

"That was not luck, that was a plan."

She joked at the start of her RNZ interview this morning: "I wondered if you were going to introduce me as the military leader of the hermit kingdom."

Ardern told RNZ the Government had been making policy based on the best evidence, and released information behind its decision-making.

"Just making sure that people know that our researchers and evidence overseas is telling us that a high vaccination rate doesn't stop outbreaks. I think it's just important information for people to know."

Ardern said many countries had kept border restrictions in place despite having large numbers of vaccinated citizens.

She told TVNZ she was "absolutely" happy about the five million vaccinations administered so far - but continued to call on people to go out and get the jab.

Asked about lockdowns, she acknowledged that that was the only way New Zealand was able to protect itself before this. But when vaccination rates got to a higher percentage rate, fewer restrictions could be imposed, she told TVNZ.

"We need there to be good spread [of vaccination] - we need it to be across ages. But when you get up around those 90 marks, then you start seeing it really make a difference to day to day life."

People understood that the higher the vaccination rate, the better, she said.

Asked if a vaccine passport was a reality for New Zealand, Ardern said it was something that the Government was considering.

Key's five-point plan

Key came up with a five-point plan in yesterday's Herald:

1. Give Māori and Pacific health providers a financial incentive for every person they get vaccinated in the next six weeks.

2. Give every person aged between 12-29 a $25 voucher of their choice if they get vaccinated before December 1.

3. Allow only vaccinated people into licensed premises (and maybe park the Shot Bro bus outside a few nightclubs as an incentive).

4. Tell New Zealanders when borders will reopen. It might incentivise more people to get jabbed.

5. Stop ruling by fear. Instead, reassure people that living with the virus is possible, as long as you're vaccinated. Take positive actions like funding Pharmac to invest in therapies proven to help fight the virus, build up our hospital capacity and workforce, use saliva testing for Covid, subsidise home-testing kits for Covid and order booster shots now.

Ardern conceded that Key's Covid response ideas were reasonable - but noted that the Government was already working on some of the measures he was proposing.

Some of those ideas related to the border re-opening; the Government had said that from the beginning of 2022, there would be variation.

On incentives, providers on the ground were already doing that. The same was happening among employers who were providing incentives for the employees to get vaccinated.

Plans involving managed isolation were also already being looked at, she said.

Key told Hosking that officials knew that Kiwis were compliant people - proved by the lockdowns - but the reality was they wouldn't get the last 20% of the population vaccinated without doing something radical, such as banning unvaccinated people from outdoor concerts.

"That's not a radical thing by the way, our daughter was in Paris a few weeks ago ... and if you don't have your vaccine passport you're not going to get in there."

His comments come as Auckland marks its 40th day in lockdown today. There were 18 new cases of Covid-19 in the community yesterday, the Ministry of Health said. All were in Auckland.

- NZ Herald and RNZ 

Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter