Opening up the hermit queendom

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern flanked by Chris Hipkins and Grant Robertson. Photo: ODT files
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern flanked by Chris Hipkins and Grant Robertson. Photo: ODT files
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has finally laid out plans for reopening fortress New Zealand.

These are cautious and some would argue much later than they needed to have been. But, at least, there is a strategy and a realisation this country cannot remain isolated for too much longer.

Typically, there is some specificity and as much vagueness as Ms Ardern can get away with. She dollops doses of anticipation alongside lots of wriggle room.

This is understandable, though, because there are so many uncertainties.

Much as business might want better signposts, there are just too many unknowns to be nailing down dates.

Whatever the politics of Ms Ardern’s utterances yesterday, there is so much Covid uncertainty that specific timetables would likely be misleading and engender false hope.

The Government — as well as Prof Sir David Skegg’s Strategic Covid-19 Public Health Advisory Group — are correct to reject opening up in advance of comprehensive vaccination.

Apart from a trial for a few hundred vaccinated business people, current travel restrictions remain for at least the rest of this year.

Then, in the first quarter of next year, new pathways for entering New Zealand are planned. These will be based on the Covid risk.

What is clear from the expert report and from heavily vaccinated nations like Iceland and Israel is that the promise of herd immunity has faded. Vaccines might massively help health outcomes but Covid will still spread and still cause sickness. The unvaccinated will not be protected by the compliance of the majority.

All it took was one Delta-variant case to sneak into Sydney and, compounded by the too-late-and-too-soft lockdown, New South Wales’s Covid-19 elimination strategy was wrecked.

Delta, or an even more damaging variant, would inevitably come in given a quarter of a chance. It would spread rapidly. Our already shaky health system, woefully short of intensive-bed capacity, would very quickly be overwhelmed.

The experts and the Government are also correct not to outline a specific vaccination percentage before the next stages. Let’s not give people the chance to say they will simply be a part of that non-inoculated cohort. We need to be aiming for as high an uptake as possible.

There will come a time not too far off when vaccination might not be compulsory but in which the unvaccinated find their travel and other activities restricted. So be it.

New Zealanders are also likely to be forced into wider compulsory mask wearing and contact tracing.

That is one of the costs of beginning to open up. The country is entering a more perilous period.

Covid-19 is even more likely to pop up. But, with widespread vaccination, possible short sharp lockdowns and other measures, elimination can continue to be pursued.

Ms Ardern, politically, knows most New Zealanders back caution. The Government is justifiably wary of over-promising and under-delivering.

Labour has been badly bitten on delivery; its 2019 year of delivery was a debacle. It has now substituted the word implementation.

There have been too many MIQ blunders, a grossly unfair booking

system that has never been updated, scandalous lags on saliva testing and damaging immigration rigidity and delays. It defies belief that, according to TVNZ, only nine of the 98 Tauranga port workers involved with the Rio de la Plata container ship had been fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

This overarching concern remains — the ability of the Government and its bureaucracies to implement what needs to be put in place.

In particular, rapid testing at airports, developing secure vaccination certification and increasing intensive care capacity are all required.

New Zealand must be properly prepared for a carefully calculated opening up.

One must hope the Government and its agencies have already worked with urgency and effectiveness on implementation.

New Zealand’s success in opening up will depend on how well the strategies are carried out.

 

Comments

I broadly agree with the cautious approach being taken but what are we going to do if we find that progress towards re-opening is being hindered by vaccine conspiracists?

You continue to tell the stories of MIQ blunders, grossly unfair booking system, scandalous lags on testing times and poor vaccination progress on border workers. All of this potential for Govt and bureaucratic failure yet we manage to avoid community spread. This is not down to good luck. Virus spread, or containment, are not down to luck. You need to give credit where it's due, the NZ Govt and it's bureaucracies have done a brilliant job at keeping us more or less virus free.
You are right though, as we cautiously open up our borders the risk increases. Continued "luck" in controlling community spread will move from the Govt and the bureaucracies to the public at large. It will depend on citizens rigorously following the guidelines over personal hygiene, masks, self isolation, using the tracer apps, and obeying local lockdowns where they are called. Of these the use of the tracer apps or simply recording your details in the lists provided by retailers etc is the most important.
This is our major weakness and NZer's, not the Govt, not the bureaucracies, our ordinary citizens are apparently incapable of using these. They are our biggest threat to community spread.

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