Cabinet’s decision to extend Auckland’s stay at Level 3 for a few days longer, while prolonging the country’s time at Level 2 into next month, shows the Government putting an understandable premium on caution, Sam Sachdeva writes

It is, somehow, only August, yet Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s verdict for 2020  – that it “has frankly been terrible” – is almost undeniable regardless of what transpires in the coming months.

Given that bigger picture, of a global pandemic that has killed over 800,000 people and infected millions more, Ardern’s announcement of a four-day extension to Auckland’s time in Level 3 lockdown loses some of its sting – but it stings nonetheless.

To some degree, the die was cast a couple of hours earlier on Monday afternoon, when Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield provided a daily health update.

While the number of new community cases – eight – was not hugely alarming, of greater concern was the specific circumstances of some individual patients.

One case still under investigation was a man who had been tested after showing up at an Auckland emergency department on Friday night, rather than being caught through the contact tracing process, while Bloomfield said new cases being linked to bus trips gave health officials “pause for thought”.

The vast majority of cases in the latest outbreak may have been connected to the Auckland cluster, but there is enough uncertainty that Bloomfield’s pause for thought has proved contagious.

Ardern has already caught flak for failing to live up to her April comments that “yo-yoing” between alert levels would be the worst-case scenario for New Zealand; moving down alert levels too early now and being yanked up for a third time would do tremendous damage to public confidence in the Government’s current strategy, and associated willingness to comply with restrictions.

Even when the country’s largest city does move out of Level 3 at 11.59pm on Sunday, it will not be to Level 2 as the rest of New Zealand knows it.

Jacinda Ardern has said that New Zealand should not “yo-yo” between alert levels – can she prevent a future rise to Level 3 in Auckland or elsewhere? Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Instead, Aucklanders will be restricted to gatherings of 10 people or fewer (with a larger 50-person limit for funerals and tangihanga), lower than the 100-person limit across the rest of the country under Level 2.

That will prove painful for some businesses – although at least the 10-person figure is a limit for individual groups at restaurants and cafes, rather than a hard cap for an establishment – but it reflects the fact that while there is still community transmission in Auckland it is better to be safe than sorry.

If there was any real surprise in the Government’s announcement, it was that the rest of the country will stay at Level 2 with Auckland until at least September 6.

Ardern conceded the decision was a “line call”, with the other option to keep Auckland at Level 3 for longer while releasing the rest of the country into Level 1 freedom.

What swung Cabinet’s decision, she said, was the likely difficulty in preventing Aucklanders from leaving the city to attend concerts, conferences or other mass gatherings elsewhere around New Zealand – and potentially spreading the virus.

Left unsaid, but surely on ministers’ minds, was the risk of resentment building between those under stringent lockdown and others gallivanting about as if nothing was wrong.

Official advice presented to Cabinet in April cited the potential damage to national unity as one of the reasons to avoid regional differences in alert levels, warning it “would undermine public cooperation and compliance with the public health requirements if people see neighbouring regions treated differently”.

There is already a strange sibling rivalry between Auckland and the rest of New Zealand, and while some may have been keen to see the Jafas suffer further, it is easy to see why the Government would want everyone on the same level (broadly speaking).

Can we stamp it out?

More difficult will be ensuring there is no repeat of the latest outbreak. Ardern was steadfastly behind New Zealand’s current strategy, saying a “stamp it out” approach was best for both the economy and the public.

That is true, but only if our contact tracing, surveillance testing, and other public health measures have sufficient rigour to ensure heavy restrictions are not needed every time a new case or cases arise, as the Prime Minister herself acknowledged.

Border testing procedures have clearly been subpar, and while we may never know the origin of the Auckland outbreak it is clear that complacency was almost certainly our undoing.

The decision to mandate the wearing of masks, albeit only on public transport and airplanes, seems a recognition that the nation must be on guard even when all seems well.

A byproduct of the lockdown extension is that political parties remain in a weird limbo, with election campaigning not quite suspended, yet not quite at full tilt.

There was a muted reaction from most party leaders to Ardern’s announcement, with politicians seemingly wary of cutting against the national mood.

Fittingly enough, New Zealand’s move out of Level 2 will, all going well, take place on September 6 – the same day that Parliament dissolves.

Then, the kid gloves will come off and an already terrible 2020 will get even worse for some of our MPs.

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

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