There will still be some kinks to iron out if and when New Zealand moves out of lockdown – but there are signs the Government has learned from its mistakes to date, Sam Sachdeva writes

Announcing new guidelines about what life after Level 4 on New Zealand’s coronavirus alert system would look like, Jacinda Ardern chose to use the analogy of a waiting room.

“We have to wait and see if what we have done has worked,” the Prime Minister said of an eventual shift to Level 3, with success or failure determining whether we moved further down or back up again.

Given we have been on lockdown, perhaps the more apt metaphor would have been monitored supervision, with our electronic ankle bracelets coming in the form of a contact tracing app for our cellphones (which the Government, it must be said, has emphasised will be voluntary).

With the Covid-19 alert system only created by the Government less than a week before we hit its highest level, there was a degree of speed winning out over thoroughness.

But the more detailed guidelines released on Thursday, which may still be reshaped following feedback from businesses and other sectors, offer a greater degree of precision.

The initial decision to designate businesses as essential or non-essential, and set their restrictions accordingly, was an understandable one.

One major online retailer allowed to operate during lockdown farcically lists an adjustable layer cake slicer, fried egg shapers and whisky rocks as among its essential homewares.

But there was a degree of arbitrariness to it, and officials had to swiftly recalibrate their assessments on a number of occasions – such as allowing firewood deliveries to those in colder climes, or the replacement of essential homewares like heaters and blankets.

Then, the definition of “essential” began to be stretched to breaking point: one major online retailer allowed to operate during lockdown farcically lists an adjustable layer cake slicer, fried egg shapers and whisky rocks as among its essential homewares.

Moving from what is essential to what is safe is a logical step, and one that some MPs and businesses have been touting for some time.

Weddings and funerals can now go ahead, albeit with a 10-person limit and no trimmings beyond the basic service – but that is the most important aspect for those who want to celebrate or grieve.

As a whole, it feels closer to the Australian approach which has managed to keep infection rates down while keeping more of the country open (although to claim that we should have done so from the outset is a purely hypothetical claim with no way to prove or disprove it).

The lack of any strong pushback from businesses or the Opposition seems a sign that the balance is mostly right – although there will undoubtedly be some new areas of disagreement uncovered as we move ahead.

There has already been a mixed response to the decision to have schools reopen to students up to Year 10 on a voluntary basis, a measure intended to reduce pressure on parents returning to work while allowing distance learning where it is preferred.

The Principals’ Federation has criticised the lack of consultation ahead of the decision, expressing concerns about teachers being stretched between those in the classroom and others learning from home, while Auckland Grammar headmaster Tim O’Connor disparaged the policy to RNZ as turning teachers into “a babysitting service” – we will surely hear more on this in the weeks ahead.

A move out of lockdown may seem like paradise, but there will still be some heavy restrictions in place. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Ardern was at pains to point out the guidelines should not be interpreted as an early omen of the Government’s decision next week, perhaps wary of getting people’s hopes up only to dash them within a few days.

Instead, it was about giving businesses and New Zealanders as a whole an early steer on what their world would look like whatever call was made.

“The last thing we want to do when moving levels is give away the gains that we have won in lockdown, so that means that we will be considering seriously all of the data and information that we present daily to you as a Cabinet when we come to make that decision.”

Showing somewhat less regard for those Cabinet discussions and Ardern’s status as primus inter pares, the Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters told Newstalk ZB on Thursday morning the data so far “points to the easing up” of restrictions.

New Zealand First MPs have been outspoken about the need to consider the economic pain of an overlong shutdown as well as the health benefits, and the party would likely resist any attempt to prolong the country’s stint at Level 4 conditions.

That may seem unlikely in any case, based on the positive trends in infection rates – but it is far from impossible.

There is still a small yet significant number of community transmission cases whose origin has not been determined. Closing those cases will be crucial in providing greater confidence that there are not unidentified clusters that could spread under less stringent conditions.

If people keep their guard up and all goes to plan, we should be out of Ardern’s waiting room and back to normal – or something resembling it – before spring…If not, it could turn into something closer to limbo.

More broadly, confident talk about our contact tracing and testing regimes has not been matched by great transparency around the data gathered so far, as the NZ Herald’s Derek Cheng has noted.

New Zealand epidemiologist Sir David Skegg has likened lifting the lockdown without suitably robust contact tracing and testing in place to Cabinet playing Russian roulette – and Ardern has rarely seemed like someone to gamble with potentially fatal consequences.

An audit of contact tracing, commissioned by the Ministry of Health and carried out by infectious diseases physician and epidemiologist Dr Ayesha Verrall, is already with ministers and its public release – meant to be before the week is out – will provide an invaluable guide to whether our officials’ confidence is well-earned or misplaced.

But even if we do move down to Level 3, it will hardly be the paradise that some seem to be imagining.

Yes, the return of Uber Eats and other food delivery services will be welcome to those who have soured on their sourdough starters and home cooking, but many workplaces will still be closed, children studying at home, and movements around town restricted.

If people keep their guard up and all goes to plan, we should be out of Ardern’s waiting room and back to normal – or something resembling it – before spring arrives.

If not, that waiting room could turn into something closer to limbo – and none of us want that.

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

Leave a comment