The Government’s new guidelines for Level 2 seem sensible enough – but the bigger test for Jacinda Ardern may come at Cabinet next week, Sam Sachdeva writes

The New Zealand penchant for understatement was on full display as Jacinda Ardern told the country about what life at Level 2 would look like.

“For six weeks now, our lives have been quite different,” the Prime Minister opened.

Quite different? Well, quite – citizens forced to stay within their homes unless accessing essential services, vast swathes of the economy making dramatic changes to the way they work, and phrases like “bubble buddy” and “East Coast wave” entering the national lexicon.

What Ardern outlined for the next rung down our Covid-19 alert system is not a return to business as usual, but as she put it “our safer normal”.

Schools, early childhood centres and universities will be allowed to reopen, along with (in descending order of personal importance to this writer) hairdressers, bars and gyms, to name but a few industries.

But physical distancing, vigilant hygiene and sanitation remain paramount – “Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Wash your hands,” repeats the Covid-19 website in a vaguely menacing manner.

Professional sport will return, but to empty stadiums, while small-scale gatherings will be allowed in people’s homes.

Taken as a whole, the revised guidelines seem sensible.

Looser on travel, tighter on big gatherings

The decision to allow travel within New Zealand, provided the intended activity fits with the continued need to avoid large-scale events which could spread the virus, strikes a fair balance; as Ardern herself put it, heading from Wellington to Napier to visit your mum is fine, but making the same trip for a large conference with an open bar is not.

The original Level 2 criteria took a harder line in advising against non-essential travel, but it became clear that was not likely to hold, with tourism operators clamouring for clientele and New Zealand First leader Winston Peters backing their cause.

Peters has enthusiastically advocated for a trans-Tasman bubble with Australia, favourably comparing Queenstown’s ski fields to New South Wales’ Snowy Mountains with winter fast approaching.

But Ardern has appeared considerably more conservative regarding the speed of such a move, and the maintenance of full border restrictions at Level 2 suggests the safe travel zone that Ardern and Australian counterpart Scott Morrison backed in principle this week may not become reality for some time.

Where travel restrictions have loosened, the rules for outdoor gatherings have tightened: previously allowed to take place with a cap of 500 people, they have now been brought in line with the 100-person limit for indoors events.

Ardern’s explanation, that “big events lead to risk, and that risk can mean big clusters”, fits with what we have seen within New Zealand and overseas.

But while the rules seem clear enough, the Government has added a layer of complexity in when we may get to them.

Barring a striking change to our Covid-19 statistics, it is hard to see Winston Peters backing an extension of Level 3 conditions. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The Prime Minister raised the possibility of a graduated move down from Level 3, in several small steps rather than one big one – a scenario which has not previously been given any real emphasis.

There is already considerable nuance to be worked through in some of the Level 2 arrangements, such as the requirement for hospitality outlets to keep a single server to each table.

One of the benefits of the alert system has been the artifice of order it has introduced – creating sub-levels within that starts to undermine that simplicity.

But the bigger test will be whether Ardern can win over New Zealand First members at the Cabinet table in the event she wishes to extend our stay at Level 3.

Peters and Shane Jones have been champing at the bit to reopen for business, and with the election creeping closer seem unlikely to adhere strictly to Cabinet collective responsibility in the event they don’t get their way.

That may be a moot point; barring a sudden spike in new cases or the emergence of a previously undetected cluster, there would seem to be little that could turn the country away from its downwards curve out of lockdown.

The bigger problem may be the systems in place for containing any surge, rather than any actual spike. It was surprising to hear Ardern say a nationwide technological solution for contact tracing at public venues was still a work in progress, given there has been a reasonable amount of time for preparation.

Legislation to enable the Level 2 framework will go before Parliament next week – particularly important given the current debate over whether or not the Government followed the law in its earlier, more rigid restrictions.

There is an understandable eagerness from many to move back to a new normal as soon as humanly possible. But there is a reason for the saying: “Act in haste, repent at leisure.” 

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

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