Virus shock to New Zealand's economy will be 'quantum greater' than GFC

Charlotte Graham-McLay in Wellington
Photograph: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

New Zealand’s finance minister has warned the nation is facing an economic shock “a quantum greater” than that of the 2008 global financial crisis, with jobless numbers likely to exceed those at the time of the meltdown.

“GDP is going to take a serious hit, as will unemployment,” Grant Robertson told a parliamentary committee set up to scrutinise his government’s actions on the Covid-19 pandemic on Wednesday. He added that he could not yet provide specific forecasts for either measure, which he said were being finalised by the Treasury.

Related: Coronavirus has delivered political consensus to New Zealand – but for how long?

New Zealand is nearly a week into a national lockdown that has seen all non-essential businesses shut and almost every New Zealander ordered to stay in their homes unless they are buying groceries or seeking medical help. The lockdown is expected to last at least one month.

New Zealand’s parliament has convened an epidemic committee made up of MPs representing each party, tasked with scrutinising the government’s actions on Covid-19. The committee, chaired by the leader of the opposition – Simon Bridges from the National party – meets by video conference in hearings that are streamed live online to the public.

A cross-party group of British MPs have called for a similar committee to be established for the House of Commons.

Caralee McLiesh, the treasury secretary, told the group on Wednesday that while the department had yet to finalise its forecasts, market views that unemployment was likely to fall between 5% and “well into the double digits” were “broadly in line” with the agency’s expectations.

New Zealand’s unemployment rate is 4.0%, with new figures expected in May.

Shamubeel Eaqub, an economist for Sense Partners, urged the government to provide more information about economic markers such as jobless claims.

“With each passing day, the issues are getting bigger and more uncertain,” he said, giving evidence to the committee on Wednesday. “We don’t know what the economy is responding to.”

Robertson, the finance minister, said that while he understood the “real hunger for that data”, treasury forecasts had the power to move markets and could not be released quickly.

Eaqub told the committee that the government should be careful in extending the lockdown measures for longer than four weeks.

“We are going to see many more businesses fail the longer this lockdown goes, unless there are many more generous provisions,” he said, adding that new entrants to the workforce following the lockdown were likely to “be delayed in their careers by many years”.

The government expects a wage subsidy for businesses struggling to keep staff during the pandemic to cost up to NZ$12bn.

A total of 708 people in the country have Covid-19, an increase of 61 confirmed and probable cases on Wednesday. Fourteen people were in hospital with the virus, two of them in stable condition in intensive care. One person has died.

Jacinda Ardern, the country’s prime minister, said while the lower number of new cases seemed heartening, it was “still too early to assess if our measures are successfully slowing transmission”.

Health officials said loosened rules on who should be tested, announced yesterday, meant confirmed cases were likely to rise.