Changing up, or down, a gear

As eagerly as children awaiting Christmas, the non-Auckland population of New Zealand sat waiting on Monday afternoon for the Government’s latest pronouncement on Covid-19 alert levels.

By the time you are reading this, all of New Zealand except for the Auckland region will be back into Alert Level 2. That opens up much greater freedoms than Alert Level 3, which was basically still lockdown but with a few takeaway treats thrown into the mix for those who like them.

Would it be fair to say there seemed more riding on this, and more collective anxiety, about the need to drop down the levels than after the lengthier lockdown in the autumn last year?

And that many non-Aucklanders were starting to lose patience with the Government because somehow much of that very large area, excluding Wellington, had miraculously avoided importing any positive cases?

The two national lockdowns had quite different origins, which may explain why they have been viewed differently and have also had different psychological ramifications.

In February and March last year, countries around the world were falling like skittles to the advancing Covid-19 virus. Like the “Phoney War” at the start of World War 2, nothing much was happening here, even though we could see it coming and there was nothing we could do to stop it.

As a result, the Government’s response took some time to formulate. The four-tiered alert system was introduced and it was four days after that that New Zealand moved into a Level 4 lockdown, with 48 hours notice.

This time, it happened so quickly. Within a couple of hours of news of a community case in Auckland, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern briefed the nation and announced a Level 4 lockdown from 11.59pm that night. It all happened in the space of eight hours or so.

The suddenness of the lockdown will have unsettled many. Ultimately that led to growing impatience and will have hastened calls for an end to it.

Cabinet this week really had no option but to drop everywhere other than Auckland back to Level 2. If it had not done so, there would have been major ructions. However, calls from some in the business sector, especially in tourist hot spots like Queenstown, to make the move earlier were premature and self-centred.

Of course we may now be in Level 2, but it is not Level 2 as we have known it. Ms Ardern referred to it on Monday afternoon as “Delta 2”, which is more like a Level 2.5 in a way, with tougher restrictions on the size of indoor and outdoor gatherings and on distancing, and requirements for mask use indoors.

Think of it like this. We have moved up or down a gear, whichever way you want to look at it. So for those who have driven manual vehicles, “Delta 2” amounts to a bit of maintenance on the clutch.

There is actually a lovely irony in making changes around the Delta variant, as the Greek symbol delta is used in the physical sciences to denote changes in properties.

Nobody could reasonably argue against the wisdom of these new, tighter, Level 2 rules. Masks are here for some time to come and most of us are either comfortable with them or are learning to put up with them.

A little more clarity around the new rules on indoor public spaces, such as libraries and museums, and presumably also places like airport terminals, might be useful. The requirement is for people to be two metres apart, but it is hazy as to whether there is also a limit of 50 people.

In all of this we need to remember our friends in Auckland. With the latest level change, the border becomes even more important and the earliest people there can hope for a change might be to Level 3 this time next week.

This is a long way from over yet.


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