Despite warnings, many Kiwis would not have expected the re-emergence of Covid-19 in the community. Now, the virus has put New Zealand on the back foot and added another election-year twist, Sam Sachdeva writes.

It was an inevitability, New Zealand was told. Not if, “just a matter of when”.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield’s comments about community transmission of Covid-19 earlier this month were hardly equivocal, but for many Kiwis the words undoubtedly washed over us without much alarm.

On Sunday, we cracked 100 days without a locally transmitted case; on Monday, there was more positive news, a small but significant step towards a so-called “travel bubble” with the Cook Islands.

But Tuesday burst our bubble, a late-night press conference called with less than 30 minutes’ notice an ominous hint of what was to come.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had a stony complexion as she walked into the Beehive theatrette alongside Bloomfield to reveal the bad news – Covid-19 had indeed re-emerged outside of our managed isolation and quarantine facilities, with four cases identified in a South Auckland family and more expected to come to light.

Auckland was to move to Alert Level 3 at midday on Wednesday, and the rest of the country to Level 2 – until midnight Friday at this stage, Ardern said, although an extension seems almost certain.

As photos of queues snaking out of Auckland supermarkets circulated on social media and the usual snake oil-peddlers claimed vindication in their claims of an orchestrated conspiracy – spoiler alert: they’re wrong – Ardern urged calm.

“My request is not to be dispirited or disheartened. When we’ve rolled out our plans before it has worked, so I’m asking that everyone joins us on that journey again, remind themselves of what we had to do last time, and just continues to stay with us.”

Another election-year twist

We may have been down that road before, but the pathway to the September 19 election has taken yet another twist.

We were already facing what some had dubbed “the Covid election”, to the chagrin of the Opposition – now, we are staring down the barrel of a Covid campaign.

Even a small extension to the Covid measures in Auckland and elsewhere would have an outsized impact on parties’ plans, given the reliance on election-year staples like campaign rallies, street-corner meetings and town hall debates – all of which generally require sizeable crowds of people.

Ardern has confirmed her short-term travel plans are out the door, with a stream of ministerial meetings and press conferences at the Beehive likely for the rest of the week at least.

The National Party has in turn scrapped its politicking plans for Wednesday, while its campaign launch – set down for Manukau’s Vodafone Events Centre on Sunday – is almost certain to be a casualty of mass gathering restrictions, even in the highly unlikely event Auckland makes its way out of Level 3 by the weekend.

Perhaps that goes some way towards explaining National leader Judith Collins’ uncharitable response to the news.

“This will come as a shock to all New Zealanders who believed what we had been told – that we had got on top of this virus,” Collins said.

Judith Collins seems set to replicate Simon Bridges’ hard-edged approach to Covid-19 lockdown. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Coupled with deputy leader Gerry Brownlee’s dark claims last week of a government cover-up, the new leadership team has either failed to learn the negative response to Simon Bridges’ negativity during the earlier lockdown, or feels confident it can succeed where he didn’t.

In fairness, there is at least some ground for the Opposition to think it could find more fertile terrain the second time around.

While Ardern successfully fostered a sense of national unity during the country’s first lockdown, that may be more difficult to replicate months later with many Kiwis feeling – accurately or otherwise – we had successfully put ourselves in a position where a second wave was unlikely.

Then there is the matter of June’s high-profile border breach, which showed our team of five million was not as impenetrable as we had thought.

The heavy hitters were rolled out, systems tightened, and assurances given that officials had learned from earlier mistakes.

But the origin of our latest community cases, and whether that “patient zero” could or should have been caught sooner, will play an outsized role in where the blame is placed.

In a highly unscientific but initial measure, the public response to a Facebook post by National about the news does not seem to have attracted anywhere near the anger that accompanied Simon Bridges’ criticism of the Level 4 lockdown extension on the same platform in April. 

Just as Covid-19’s first wave ended political careers as it crashed on our shores, so too could a second wave wipe out more – exactly whose, and how, remains to be seen.

But any sustained lockdown would heighten Ardern’s inherent advantage in holding office, along with a chance to again capture the eyes and ears of many Kiwis through daily briefings – already a sore point with National earlier in the year, and likely to burst blood vessels if it was to occur again with advance voting less than a month away.

Then there is the small matter of the September 19 election itself. While the Electoral Commission has outlined its plans for proceeding should part or all of the country to be at Level 2, any move higher up the alert system would become exponentially more difficult to manage.

For her part, Ardern has refused to engage in any speculation, but the possibility cannot be discounted that it would be either impossible or undesirable to proceed as planned.

The bigger picture should become clearer in the coming days, as contact tracers track down new cases and, all going well, stamp out the virus before it spreads across cities and regions.

Of course, the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders trumps political machinations and aspirations.

But just as Covid-19’s first wave ended political careers as it crashed on our shores, so too could a second wave wipe out more – exactly whose, and how, remains to be seen.

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

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