A stronger case to relax restrictions

Jacinda Ardern
Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Getty Images
Many New Zealanders are already acting as though the Government has softened the Covid-19 restrictions.

That it has not but that so many people have, suggests there is no longer a right or a wrong time to move the country to Alert Level 1.

For clarity’s sake, the country is still at Covid-19 Alert Level 2. Social distancing is still required, large gatherings are still limited to 100 people, and many businesses still must keep a record of who visits, and when.

This was abundantly clear over Queen’s Birthday weekend. No matter where one travelled, social-distancing stickers on shop floors and hand sanitiser showed there was no holiday from minimising the threat posed by Covid-19. But this unity of message did not always translate to a unity of resolve. For some, the long weekend was their first opportunity to leave the cares and fears of the pandemic response behind, and to take back some of the life they knew pre-lockdown.

They — we — enjoyed many of the freedoms we had before the lockdown. We drove and walked and cycled where we wanted, we stayed where we wanted and, if they were still open, we visited the places, businesses and attractions we wanted.

We arrived in numbers and, despite businesses’ best efforts to comply with Level 2 rules, we still managed to jostle in the aisles, crowd the food counters and gather on the footpaths. Old habits — even those we have spent the best part of three months modifying — die hard.

This should surprise no-one. Much of what we do, we do as habit. And, countless academic studies suggest we struggle to change entirely our habits unless there is a clear and present danger in us sticking to our old ways.

This danger was entirely clear and palpably present when we were in Level 4 lockdown, when the number of Covid-19 cases climbed and when people died. Then, fear and a mix of community cohesion and community expectation ensured most people stuck to the rules.

Now, New Zealand is in a period in which there is just one active Covid-19 case and in which there have been no new, confirmed cases for 11 days. There were no new, confirmed cases in the South for weeks.

The average person would be forgiven for thinking there is much less to worry about now that community transmission seems unlikely, and much more to gain. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reinforced this when she yesterday confirmed New Zealand could move to Alert Level 1 as soon as next week, ‘‘if, and only if, there are no unexpected cases over the coming days’’. The country’s Covid-19 response was, she said, ‘‘exceeding’’ expectations.

The move seems inevitable; on the virus, Ms Ardern has been careful not to raise expectations if there is little chance of follow-through.

This will please those who want a quick but measured return to near-normalcy but it will also confound those who believe a country that has made such significant gains, and which seems clear of community spread, should be ready to move to Level 1 now. After all, the Government has assured us its contact tracing regime is robust and capable of tackling outbreaks should they emerge from what appears a population nearly free of the obvious signs of Covid-19.

Business leaders have, again, asked why now is not the right time to move to Level 1. They, and others, are right to say New Zealanders were trusted to follow the rules to contain the virus, and so we must be challenged to make Level 1 work, and soon. Epidemiologists, meanwhile, tell us there is a growing consensus that New Zealand is approaching elimination, but there is a chance asymptomatic carriers and hidden transmission could upset progress.

Complacency is the enemy, and this will be the case no matter when New Zealand moves to Level 1. After months of careful restriction, it is right to ask whether New Zealanders are vigilant enough to make the leap of faith sooner rather than later.



Democracy is tyranny by the majority. Must policy be contingent on the impatient?





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