New Zealand Inc should celebrate its Level 1 freedoms, but prepare for a long stay in a rattly and shaky gilded cage that will need its bars electrified with a much faster tracing system, Bernard Hickey argues

“We’re free to do what we want, any old time,” as the Rolling Stones’ song goes, and for a brief moment, our Level 1 freedoms starting will feel a lot like we’re free again.

Except we’re not.

The fight to keep our economy and society free of Covid-19 will become a perma-vigil for years to come that is punctuated with scares about a potential move back to Level 4 devastation. After 75 days of severe restrictions, we can afford a day or two of hugs, hongi and excited reunions, but now the long grind of life in a nation-sized lockdown begins.

We’ve built ourselves the best gilded cage of an economy in the world, but it is still a cage that mosquitoes can fly into. The bars of that cage will need to be reinforced and electrified if we are to keep our precious Covid-19 eliminated status, and we should settle in for a much longer stay in that cage than politicians on both sides of the Tasman and elsewhere would like us to dream about.

Our borders are virtually closed and are likely to stay that way well into 2021, if not longer. New Zealand’s businesses, government and society will have to get used to doing business, staying in touch with friends and family, and understanding the world from long-distance, and for a long time.

Don’t bet on bigger bubbles

It was noticeable at yesterday’s post-Cabinet news conference announcing the move to Level 1 a day earlier than most expected that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern signalled caution about opening up our national ‘bubble’ to others, including Australia or the Pacific Islands. 

“Ultimately, I don’t want New Zealand businesses in particular, or even Kiwis who might be wanting to travel across the ditch, to be given a false start. I’d rather share timelines when we have much more certainty and at the moment we just don’t,” Ardern said.

“We do need to act cautiously. New Zealand is currently ahead of Australia in terms of our progress. They are making progress state by state, but it’s not universal. So we will keep up those conversations with Australia. We will keep preparing,” she said.

She is already facing intense pressure from the likes of her Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters to open the economy up to Australia, the Pacific, Taiwan and the rest of the world. 

Don’t forget the maths

The problem is the mathematics of Covid-19 are brutal, which is why there is such caution. Given the level of asymptomatic transmission possible before the emergence of symptoms, then testing, tracing and self isolation, there is simply not enough time to cordon off an outbreak and stop it under Level 1 conditions without social isolation.

That’s why informed people are very wary of all the talk of extended ‘bubbles’ and air bridges. Aviation NZ CEO John Nicholson said on Monday talk of a Trans-Tasman bubble ASAP was “unhelpful.”

“I think there’s a lot of posturing going on but it may not be informed posturing, and that’s the part to me that creates unreasonable expectations,” Nicholson told RNZ.

“So I think in something like this we do have to manage peoples’ expectations very carefully,” he said.

Let’s not kid ourselves

We have kidded ourselves that our experience of containing foreign-sourced Covid-19 cases during Level 4 and Level 3 can be repeated under Level 1. It can’t, not without the introduction of extremely rapid testing and a near-failsafe tracking and isolation system — neither of which we are nearly close to. Realistically, by the time we have discovered a super spreader, it will be too late and the economy risks being thrown into a Level 4 lockdown again. 

We have built a beautiful and clean cage, and now we’ll have to electrify and reinforce the bars with very strict entry rules, border testing, quarantines, super-fast testing, a widespread and robust tracing system and hyper-vigilance.

Without the global rollout of a vaccine, which most see as 18 months away at best, New Zealand Inc should prepare for a long and frustrating stay in our gilded cage. We should be rightly proud of our shiny new thing at the bottom of the world, but it could mean years without trips to meet new business contacts, years without seeing relatives, years without international sport, years without international live entertainment and a complete rejig of our economic model based on international tourism, international education and cheap and exploitable guest workers.

Surely we can have exceptions to the rules?

There will be enormous pressure from businesses and voters to break out of our cage or lever open the bars to let others in. We’ve already seen that with the politically connected film industry opening up the Museum Hotel in Wellington for movie executives and their partners, while the less politically connected temporary migrants and their families stranded overseas remain stranded overseas. 

MPs, ministers, departmental heads and opinion page editors can expect to be inundated week-in and week-out with special pleadings from special industries and very special individuals to come and join us (and then leave us) in our cage, or vice versa.

The temptation will be to make those exceptions, now that the immediate threat of being overwhelmed seems to have passed. It has already started. But the risk is just as large if there is a breakout, especially now politicians will be even more reluctant to go back to level four restrictions.

A temptation to relax into suppression or herd immunity

It was relatively easy to go there not knowing for sure how economically damaging it would be and having the immediate threat of inundation. Remember, that the Prime Minister was able to portray a move to Level 4 and a thrust for elimination as absolutely necessary and possible, given what we were seeing unfold on our screens in real time in the likes of Italy and Britain.

But now the emergency has passed, the temptation will be to believe we can relax and say collectively: “We’ve got this.”

New Zealand is unique in the world in being a populous, developed and internationally-open country that has eliminated Covid-19.

The alternatives are unthinkable. We could accidentally slide into a suppression strategy that turns into a herd immunity strategy. We are neither ready for, nor want, either. 

We have chosen elimination. That means a very tight and electrified cage, or the risk of extremely damaging trips back to Level 4 social isolation.

Electrifying and reinforcing the bars

Simply assuming the job is done and the existing tracing, testing and treatment regimes will keep us Covid-19 free is not enough.

It means keeping the severe restrictions on entry, testing on arrival, quarantine and isolation for anyone suspected or connected to a spreader. It means kicking the guest worker addiction and saying no to movie moguls, CEOs, foreign ministers, sports stars and the thousands of citizens wanting to return to see dying, ageing, marrying or birthing relatives and friends.

It will also mean totally transforming the way we trace and track. The dog’s breakfast of lists, apps, QR codes and nods and winks at cafes, bars, restaurants and venues will have to be fixed pronto. Currently, the Government is playing softly, softly with businesses on the lack of consistency and adoption of a single official system, which currently requires a business to have RealMe access and a New Zealand Business Number. 

We’ll also need a proper electronic and networked tracing system, with all the privacy fears and costs that entails.

Singapore has been a useful trailblazer in this space, first launching its TraceTogether app for phones, and now looking at a standalone bluetooth bracelet, not dissimilar to the CovidCard idea already being considered by the Government. 

Just pay the insurance premium

The $100 million cost and the compulsion involved in such a rollout of a card on a lanyard for everyone seems puny as a real peace-of-mind insurance premium to avoid going back into Level 4 restrictions that would cost the Government another $62 billion in fiscal stimulus, let along the losses for private businesses. 

We should not kid ourselves that a 20 percent download rate for the Government’s Covid Tracer app is remotely acceptable or safe, let alone that most businesses that need to use it are not. Level One has also coincided with the end of physical visit registers. 

We are now essentially flying blind in our cage until we have upgraded that system. And we are already allowing too many potential Covid-19 carriers into our cage to think it is truly safe from an awful return to Level 4, or even worse, doing a Sweden or a Britain and accepting we should sacrifice a generation of nanas and granddads so the economy can ‘recover’.

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