Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins has slammed former Prime Minister Sir John Key's ideas to transform the country's pandemic strategy as an insult to New Zealanders.
"I think it's a great piece of politics," Hipkins said on TVNZ's Q+A programme on Sunday morning.
"Actually many things that John Key's arguing are already happening."
In an opinion piece in today's Herald, Key said the New Zealand Government and public health officials needed to rapidly change their thinking and "the aim should no longer be to exist a smug hermit kingdom".
He said the problem with this "hermit kingdom mode" was also that people had to believe the Government can go on borrowing a billion dollars every week "to disguise that we are no longer making our way in the world".
Key made a five point plan, calling on Māori and Pacific health providers to get financial incentives for every person they get vaccinated in the next six weeks. Giving every person aged between 12-29 a $25 voucher of their choice if they get vaccinated before December 1 and allowing only vaccinated people into licensed premises were among his suggestions.
He said the Government should also tell New Zealanders when borders will reopen, and to "stop ruling by fear" and instead reassure people that living with the virus is possible, as long as they're vaccinated.
Key said the final part of the plan was to open borders soon and start home quarantine immediate as MIQ, as the country's sole quarantine response, was inadequate.
"I really don't agree with him describing New Zealand as a smug hermit kingdom," Hipkins said.
"I think that's an insult to New Zealanders who have actually achieved some of the highest rates of freedom in the world by going hard and going early when we've needed to."
Hipkins said the Government's plan was still to get back to zero Covid-19 cases.
"Vaccination plays a really big role on what happens next," Hipkins told Q+A.
"We can't keep using level 3 and level 4 restrictions, the level of restrictions we have at the border. Again it is something that we will have to allow for greater movement at the border in the future."
Hipkins wouldn't say at what point New Zealand will see fewer lockdowns or have the borders open up.
He said even if the vaccination rate reaches 90 per cent, what the government would then look at is who is in the 10 per cent group that isn't vaccinated.
"If there are high concentration pockets of people who aren't vaccinated then that still poses a significant risk," Hipkins said.
"Take Auckland for example, in the beginning of this week just passed, we still had around 23,000 over the age of 65 who haven't been vaccinated."
In the event of one in six needing hospitalisation if there was a widespread outbreak, this will put significant pressure on the health system.
The minister said high rates of vaccination would not mean the end of restrictions, but that the elimination process looks different.
"It means that when a case pops up, it doesn't mean there's going to be a public health emergency every time," he said.
"But it does mean we can respond quickly when we see cases and we will have different tools to do that."
Hipkins said New Zealand has managed to avoid extended periods of lockdowns like New South Wales by going hard and going early.
"We're reaching the end potentially of being able to use that (lockdown) approach," he said.
"But if other variants emerge, that are vaccine resistant for example, then we have to re-think. Covid continues to evolve, it continues to mutate, so the challenges we're faced with continues to change."