New Zealand is still waiting for clarity around what life after lockdown will look like – and businesses, epidemiologists and politicians all have their own distinct views, as Sam Sachdeva reports

It’s the question on everyone’s minds: what will life post-lockdown look like in New Zealand?

The Government is set to release guidance later this week, explaining what a shift out of Alert Level 4 – the highest on the country’s Covid-19 alert system – would mean in practice for Kiwis.

But there are already a wide range of views on what we could, or should, be doing as we move out of high alert and into a new normal.

Some, including National MPs on Parliament’s epidemic response committee, have looked to Australia as an example of what New Zealand could or should be doing, with a wider range of businesses (notoriously, including hairdressers) allowed to open.

But Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy told the committee on Tuesday there had still been a dramatic drop in the public’s movements, with an 80 percent reduction in foot traffic at shopping centres and major public areas.

Murphy said some retail chains had chosen to close without government intervention, although they were now considering whether to reopen in a safe manner.

Another notable difference between the two countries was the intended duration of the restrictions.

While the Government here set out an initial four-week period for lockdown, Murphy said Australia’s measures were designed to be in place for some months.

There was “no easy way out without a vaccine”, he said, with any loosening of lockdown rules contingent on robust contact tracing procedures, maintenance of physical distancing, and a broad regime of testing, including sentinel testing (also referred to as surveillance testing) in the wider community.

“We feel that any relaxation could only be done if one is absolutely confident that you’ve got a really good public health response system so outbreaks that might appear, clusters that might appear, can be aggressively locked down.”

“Health and the economy can be seen as sort of boxers in opposing corners, but they go together, and the health effects of not getting people back into work will be very negative as well, so…we should try and come out reasonably soon.”

New Zealand epidemiologist Sir David Skegg cautioned the committee against drawing conclusions from Australia’s looser restrictions but similar infection rates, saying the country was “a bit of an enigma” due to its disproportionately high hospitalisation rates compared with New Zealand.

Skegg echoed Murphy’s remarks about the importance of contact tracing and surveillance testing, suggesting those measures were a prerequisite to any change in alert status.

Speaking to Newsroom after the meeting, National leader Simon Bridges said he wanted the post-lockdown environment to be one where “businesses can get back to business”.

“What I mean by that is moving from this essential services framework … to one where actually if a business, whether it be in construction or online trade or a hairdresser for that matter, can assure the Government that it is meeting certain safeguards, whether it be through no contact or social distancing or just good hygiene, that we allow that to happen.”

Ardern and her ministers had trumpeted a “go hard and go early” approach to the lockdown, and needed to maintain that attitude to loosening the restrictions rather than succumbing to timidity.

“Health and the economy can be seen as sort of boxers in opposing corners, but they go together, and the health effects of not getting people back into work will be very negative as well, so … we should try and come out reasonably soon.”

Bridges said some business representatives had described Level 3 to him as a limbo of sorts, with not enough certainty around which businesses could open and how.

“It’s a no man’s land where we’re not trading and we’re not not trading, and it’s not a good place to be because as I speak and every day that goes by, it’s more likely that more businesses will fail.”

Hospitality New Zealand president Jeremy Smith agreed, telling Newsroom a move down to Level 3 would provide scant comfort for bars and restaurants unable to fully operate, even if they could provide takeaways.

“It’s a no man’s land where we’re not trading, and it’s not a good place to be because as I speak and every day that goes by, it’s more likely that more businesses will fail.”

Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford said the retail sector expected a managed approach back into operation, with online sales and “click and collect” mechanisms as an initial stage before physical stores reopened.

Harford said the Government needed to offer clear advice on what public health measures would be in place, while he also expressed concern about the existing “essential services” model.

“You’d be much better off looking at it from a risk management approach and saying actually, can these goods or services be delivered safely?”

But there are signs the Government is heeding those concerns, with Finance Minister Grant Robertson offering a hint of what was to come during his appearance before the committee on Tuesday.

Robertson said there would be clear guidelines established for what constituted “safe economic activity” at Level 3, setting out a universal approach on issues like physical distancing and contact tracing.

“What we fundamentally want is a set of principles that can then be applied to particular industries, particular sectors, particular businesses.”

While Robertson offered some clarity for businesses, what a change to Level 3 or lower would mean for people moving around the country for education or work, as well as whether households temporarily split into different bubbles could be reunited, remains to be seen.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said community wellbeing was among the factors in the Government’s decision-making process, but she cautioned that a move to Level 3 would still carry “considerable restrictions”.

“In large part that’s of course because if we do have outbreaks, it’s about making sure within that alert level, they are as contained as possible … if you think about that principle, as you can imagine, we will still have guidance that really does restrict wider social engagement, but we do want to think about people’s mental health and wellbeing, so that’s part of our thinking too.”

Regardless of what alert level New Zealand was at, Ardern warned physical distancing measures would be in place for some time – and Smith admitted hospitality businesses would need to be “very creative” to comply with those rules while remaining profitable.

“We’re going to have to manage social distancing and I’m just hoping that people are open to working with us, whether we come up with something where your booking’s only for, you know, an hour and a half, and then we allow the next sort of people to come in.”

Hospitality NZ was also working on a technological solution to the requirement that businesses maintain a guest register, although it was waiting to see whether the Government’s work on a contact tracing app would supplement or supplant its own plans.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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