The Government is cracking down on businesses abusing the $10 billion wage subsidy scheme and has a team of more than 100 auditors combing through financial returns for evidence of fraud.

Although the number of businesses caught abusing the system has so far been less than a fraction, it is highly likely much more wrongdoing will be detected.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson said those found to be in breach could face criminal prosecution and face a seven-year jail sentence.

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"Everyone who has taken money from the wage subsidy scheme needs to know that our audit teams will be looking across the full suite of applications," he told media yesterday.

More than $10.3 billion has been paid out, benefiting 1.6 million workers across the country.

Tuesday marks the halfway point of the 12-week assistant package scheme and unions are already calling on the programme to be extended, or superseded by a more comprehensive policy.

This comes as New Zealand enters its final days of level 4 lockdown. After 11.59pm on Monday, the country will go into alert level 3.

There were just five new cases of Covid-19 to report yesterday, bringing the total number of cases in New Zealand to 1456.

Almost 1100 people have recovered, meaning the number of active cases in the country is just 356.

But director of public health Caroline McElnay also revealed a man in his 60s has died from the virus.

He was a resident to the Rosewood Rest Home in Christchurch and is the 10th person from that cluster to die.

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Robertson said yesterday each death from Covid-19 was a person who was loved and whose family was dealing with the grief of death in the most trying of circumstances.

Much of his comments at yesterday's 1pm press conference focused around the economy and Covid-19's impact on businesses.

New data from the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) shows the number of applications for the Jobseekers benefit has jumped by 30,000 since March 20.

Although times are tough for those applying for the scheme, Robertson pointed out that the figure represented less than 1 per cent of the total population.

"[It] is dwarfed by the 1.6 million people who are being supported by the wage subsidy scheme," he said.

He added the scheme had been a "lifeline" for many businesses across the country.

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But of the $10.3b paid out so far, more than $17 million has had to be refunded to the Government after businesses which were not entitled to the scheme took the money.

Almost 1300 applicants have voluntarily advised they would pay back the subsidy – totalling $16.2m, according to MSD figures.

But the Government's auditing resulted in 56 applicants being asked to refund either all, or part of the subsidy.

They are required to pay back $1.25m and MSD is now looking into criminal prosecutions.

But this is likely just the tip of the iceberg, given the Government has approved more than 410,000 wage subsidy scheme applications so far.

Robertson confirmed the Government's team of more than 100 auditors and fraud investigators would be going through all applications.

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If prosecuted, those in breach could face between three and seven years in jail, according to the Ministry of Social Development's Employment General Manager Jayne Russell.

The scheme was put in place to give firms hit hardest by Covid-19 a "bit of breathing space," so they're able to plan for the future, Robertson said.

But Council of Trade Unions President Richard Wagstaff said the Government needs to consider extending the scheme after the 12 weeks is up.

Either that, or come up with a new arrangement which is "as good, or better".

"[Employees] need support; we don't want more people going onto the benefit."

Robertson has been coy about what additional support is coming – saying only the Government does have more stimulus packages up its sleeve.

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Speaking to Bloomberg yesterday afternoon, the Finance Minister gave some hints as to what that package might look like and when it would be coming.

"While there is a need to continue to support households and businesses to get through, we need to be thinking about when stimulus would be having the best effect.

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"When consumers are perhaps feeling quite gun shy and restricted in what they can actually do and buy, that's probably not the best time."

He would not go into much more detail, other than to say what the Government has planned is "eye-watering compared to what countries like ourselves are used to spending".

The Budget – scheduled for May 14 – will provide the building blocks for the third wave of New Zealand's economic plan – the "reset and rebuild" phase.

A good way New Zealanders can help with this plan, according to Robertson, is to shop locally when lockdown restrictions are eased.

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He said there were many small businesses which hadn't been able to generate any revenue for the past four weeks.

"Now is the opportunity for us to all support those businesses in our community," he said.
"I really encourage New Zealanders, as I always do, to buy local and support the small businesses in your community."

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