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Political consensus in the fight against Covid-19 is on the verge of falling apart, with the Opposition slamming the Government for its "inhumane" limit on funeral and religious gatherings under alert level 2.
One senior National MP last night described Jacinda Ardern as being like "Muldoon with slogans".
But Ardern has defended the 10-person limit at funerals because of public health concerns, citing mass gatherings at services overseas that had led to new coronavirus outbreaks.
Those concerns increased for funerals and tangi, she said, because of people's tendencies to hug each other for comfort when they are grieving.
National Party leader Simon Bridges said today it was time Kiwis were treated like adults and trusted to do the right thing.
"It's not just unkind. it's inhumane. If you can socially distance at a movie theatre with 99 other people you can do the same at a funeral or a church," Bridges told Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB.
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Until now, the National Party has disagreed with the Government on aspects of the response, but voted in support of all of its Covid-related legislation.
That changed last night as National voted against a bill that set up the legal framework for future alert levels, which it described as enabling "executive overreach" in a way that didn't trust New Zealanders.
The Covid-19 Public Health Response Bill was rushed through most of its legislative stages under urgency, with the support of Labour, NZ First, the Greens and Act.
Its final reading is expected to pass this morning so the bill can be in place by the time alert level 2 begins at 11.59pm tonight. Act may oppose the final reading if the party's proposed changes have not been adopted.
In his first reading speech, National MP Michael Woodhouse condemned the bill for being rushed through under urgency, and said Ardern was "Rob Muldoon with slogans and kindness."
He said an order from the Health Minister could be made without needing to have regard to health advice from the country's top health official.
"That is the classic case of executive overreach."
Legislating for physical distancing, he said, showed a general mistrust of New Zealanders.
"We are going to make a law about how close I can get to members of this house. Why don't they make a law about sneezing into your sleeve or washing your hands?
"That's where we've got to. The Government doesn't trust Kiwis."
Tomorrow New Zealand will wake up to the relative freedoms of alert level 2, including most businesses reopening under strict rules to enforce physical distancing and making contact tracing easier.
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The success of the country's Covid-19 response was underlined yesterday when there were no new cases - the third time this month where there were no new daily cases.
The death toll remains at 21, and with 93 per cent of cases recovered, there are now only 78 active cases, two of whom are in hospital, and none in ICU.
Level 2 is being phased in with bars having to remain closed for another week, while gatherings will be limited to 10 people until a review in two weeks.
The Government said the bill was needed to avoid any legal hiccups as the country moved into different future alert levels. It would effectively allow the Health Minister to issue an order that would make alert level rules legally enforceable.
That might include, for example, the ability for police or "enforcement officers" to close certain premises or roads, ban certain types of travel or congregations, or require people to be physically distant or to stay at home in their bubbles if necessary.
It also would allow warrantless searches of private property if there was a reasonable belief that the alert level rules were being broken.
But Bridges criticised the level 2 rules, saying people should be allowed to gather in groups of up to 100.
He said it didn't make sense to allow 30 professional rugby players to tackle each other or up to 100 people to be in a mall or a cinema under level 2, but to limit gatherings at a funeral to 10 people.
"This outcome is not kind. In fact it's inhumane," he said at the bill's first reading.
Places of worship should also be opened up, he said, because physical distancing can be observed and contact-tracing made easy for those in a church, mosque or temple.
Health Minister David Clark said he would take advice from the director general of health, and consult with the Justice Minister and the Prime Minister, as well as other ministers as appropriate, before issuing an order.
He also has to consider social and economic factors.
Attorney-General David Parker said the bill had bypassed select committee scrutiny because of the extraordinary circumstances of Covid-19, but a draft of the bill had been made available to the Opposition and to legal experts.
Earlier Ardern conceded that the decision to put a 10-person limit on gatherings, especially for a funeral or tangi, was "causing pain".
"The idea we would force people to not be able to comfort each other is very hard to comprehend.
"This has been very hard ... ultimately we want to protect people."
She said large gatherings had already led to clusters of infection in New Zealand, but that risk was greater at a funeral because of how people physically consoled each other.
Funerals overseas had also led to further outbreaks. One February funeral in a city in Georgia, US, is thought to have drawn more than 100 mourners and subsequently led to hundreds of Covid-19 cases.
Yesterday the devastating impacts of Covid-19 on the tourism and hospitality sectors was laid bare as operators appeared before the Epidemic Response Committee.
A survey by Tourism Industry Aotearoa revealed that 93 per cent of all tourism operators have taken up the wage subsidy scheme, while Sudima Hotels had cut staff by 80 per cent.
Ardern said later that there would be additional support announced tomorrow in the Budget, and containing the virus was the best way to get the domestic tourism sector back up on its feet as soon as possible.
In a pre-Budget announcement, the Government also pledged $3.92 billion to DHBs to ensure they were prepared for a future Covid-like crisis, while a further $282.5 million would clear the Covid backlog.
There are an estimated 153,000 more surgeries and procedures, radiology scans and specialist appointments needed to catch up from the Covid-19 disruption, which will likely take years to clear.