A law to freeze rents and prevent tenants from losing their homes will be passed under urgency in Parliament today.

The law will also declare a national emergency as well as an epidemic notice under the Epidemic Preparedness Act, which empowers the Government to change almost any law at the stroke of a pen.

This morning Finance Minister Grant Robertson defended the Government's actions to protect renters in light of the six-month mortgage-repayment holiday scheme for homeowners, which he has negotiated with the major banks.

Although there was no equivalent rent-holiday for tenants, he said freezing rents and the suspension of "no-cause" tenancy termination notices would help, and welfare payments such as the accommodation supplement were also available in some circumstances.


Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website

The new law, once passed, would mean that tenants cannot be evicted unless they had broken the law, he said.

He encouraged landlords applying for a mortgage-repayment holiday to talk to tenants about "breathing space", adding that mortgage payments were simply being deferred and would still incur interest.

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He did not know how many mortgage holders would apply.

"At this stage, it's very hard to tell. The criteria the banks have put in place around that - being affected by Covid-19 - clearly many mortgage holders have been and will be," he told Newstalk ZB this morning.

Statistics NZ estimates of the about 1.7 million households in New Zealand, 600,000 are renters.

$30b so far to cushion the blow

Yesterday Robertson also announced a $6.25 billion business finance guarantee scheme aimed at stopping thousands of businesses going into default.


He said the cost of the Government measures to offset the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic - including this year's $12b infrastructure announcement - will total around $30 billion so far, or roughly 10 per cent of GDP.

The Government has announced a six-month mortgage holiday for those whose incomes have been affected by Covid-19.

He urged businesses to do the right thing after reports from the Council of Trade Unions that employers were pocketing the wage subsidy money from the Government and letting staff go.

"Employers who are taking taxpayers' money in a time of crisis have a moral obligation to not then use it to line their own pockets," CTU president Richard Wagstaff said.

Robertson said the scheme was based on an employers' "best endeavours" to pay 80 per cent of a worker's pay for 80 per cent work.

"Thus far firms have made a pretty good fist of this because they're getting an up-front lump-sum payment," Robertson told RNZ.

"Businesses are then able to make their judgement about how they spread that across their existing resources and keep people employed."

He said he was still considering a form of universal basic income for people whose incomes had been upended by the coronavirus outbreak.

It could be implemented after the end of the lockdown - which will be in place from midnight tonight and for at least four weeks - to help affected people in the medium to long term.

Parliament will sit today with a minimum of MPs, and an urgent law will be passed before it adjourns until April 28.

A special select committee of 11 MPs will sit in the coming weeks. It will be chaired by National leader Simon Bridges and have a majority of Opposition MPs.

But Act leader David Seymour said Question Time should still proceed and electorate offices should stay open.

"The Prime Minister will soon issue an epidemic notice and invoke the Epidemic Preparedness Act. This legislation gives the Government the ability to change almost any law at the stroke of a pen.

"It may be necessary for the Government to have these extraordinary powers. If so, it is critical that Parliament is able to continue to hold the Government to account."