Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has questioned whether Māori should put a permanent end to the use of hongi, saying Covid-19 was a lesson that cultures need to adapt or die.

Peters made the comments while defending restrictions which will allow only 10 people to attend a funeral or tangi, including at marae.

"One of the things you've got to have regard for is whether the hongi in these circumstances is ever going to come back again. There's a famous old saying that says cultures that don't adapt die, and we have to be so careful."

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Most iwi have made the decision to cease hongi during the pandemic because of the risk of transmission, but Peters said it was time to consider whether that should be permanent.

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Peters said Māori lives, and old people's lives in particular, were on the line and the percentage of Māori who died in the Spanish flu pandemic was much higher than Europeans.

"There's a past lesson, and there is a present one now. In terms of colds, flus, and Covid-19, it surely makes sense for us to consider it."

Winston Peters and Shane Jones hongi after the Northland byelection in 2015. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Winston Peters and Shane Jones hongi after the Northland byelection in 2015. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it was up to Māori leaders to make decisions on such practices.

Crown-Maori Relations Minister Kelvin Davis said it was up to Māori to decide when it was appropriate to reintroduce the hongi – but had little time for the suggestion it be scrapped permanently.

"I think there will always be a place in Māori society for a hongi."

National Party leader Simon Bridges also rejected the idea of a permanent demise for the hongi, saying there was as much a place for it as for hugs and kisses.

"I accept we are in special circumstances now, but I reject the idea this is a permanent position where loved ones, family and friends can't embrace in the future."