The Government’s first focus throughout the pandemic has been political choreography, not the public health response, writes Peter Dunne. So stand by for a change in narrative

OPINION: There is a sense of here we go again, as the country gets used to a Level 4 Covid-19 lockdown once more. But it is not the same as last year’s Level 4 lockdown. The circumstances are quite different.

Last year, the lockdown was a much greater journey into the unknown. We had never done this sort of thing before, either in wartime or peacetime. We did not know where it would lead, whether there would be public compliance, how it would work in practice and what the outcome might be in terms of controlling or eliminating the virus. There was no playbook for the Government to fall back on and it, and its advisers, were largely left to make it up as they went along.

Yet, what we did worked, in the short term at least. In that context, and the sense of relief it generated, the unfortunately premature announcement by the Prime Minister at the end of May 2020 that we had become the first country in the world to have eliminated Covid-19 was probably understandable, albeit unwise and gauche.

However, we became too carried away by our transitory success. We were promised this time last year (conveniently just before the election) that we would be at the head of the queue for mass vaccination. But that promise was abruptly forgotten once the election was over.

And because we had apparently done so well in “eliminating” the virus, making sure we had enough intensive care beds to cope should there ever be a major outbreak also took a back seat. We even reduced the numbers of available beds, in proportionate terms, to far fewer beds than available in Britain, Australia or Germany.

According to Ministry of Health figures, the numbers of ICU beds was reduced from 358 in July last year to 284 today. Photo: Francisco Àvia Hospital

But there was nothing to worry about – after all, the Prime Minister promised us in January this year would be the year of the vaccine. Yet so far barely 20 percent of the total population has been fully vaccinated, making the “head of the queue” and “year of the vaccine” claims no more than just broken political promises.

We scoffed at how irresponsible Britain was in removing most of its Covid-19 restrictions in July. We sniggered not too quietly at Australia’s mounting crisis over the past month, exacerbated by low, but still higher than ours, vaccination rates.

Yet all the while, despite the warnings that we were but one case away from an outbreak here, we remained complacent, confidently believing we had, to all intents and purposes, eliminated the virus here. And the Government was happy for, and quietly encouraged, that to be the national narrative.

After much prodding, the Government had finally released an admittedly still vague and tentative roadmap for a return to normality. It still looked as though the large dose of luck that had been our saviour to this point might hold out after all, even after the advent of the Delta variant overseas. Amazingly, we still smugly believed we had been able to do what no other country had achieved and that we were safe.

Quadrupling our current level of fully vaccinated people would give the Government far more options. It belatedly seems to have realised this, but its current push to increase vaccination still seems lopsided and in some cases unfair.

And then it struck, initially through a single case, which has spread rapidly through the community. A new reality dawned. Not only was Covid-19 back, but this time it was with a vengeance that exposed the sham and utter inadequacy of our safeguards.

Woeful vaccination rates were one thing but when it became clear according to Ministry of Health figures that the numbers of ICU beds had been reduced from 358 beds in July last year to 284 today, there had been no increase in ICU staffing for 18 months, and the NZ Medical Association’s call a year ago for a co-ordinated national ICU strategy had been ignored, the Government’s indolence began to look scandalous.

Its initial response to the Delta outbreak looked like more of the same. The Prime Minister even said as much – we would just do what we had done so successfully last year, and everything would be fine once more.

But by the first weekend of the lockdown, things were shifting. Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins went so far as to wonder how much longer we would be able to stick to the elimination strategy, although he was quickly shot down by his more junior colleague Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall, insisting the Government was as committed as ever to elimination.

Nevertheless, it was a sign that opinions within the Government are less uniform than they were.

There has been no increase in ICU staffing for 18 months, and the NZ Medical Association’s call a year ago for a co-ordinated national ICU strategy had been ignored. Photo: Francisco Àvia Hospital

More significantly, differences between ministers and officials have become more apparent. Although the Prime Minister remains insistent the Government is following as strongly as ever the health advice it is receiving, the reality is different.

The Government is mindful that public opinion, while still strongly on its side, is less uncritical than last year. So it has gone for shorter regularly reviewed lockdowns of just a few days duration so far.

This has been despite the constant recommendations from the echo chamber of Bloomfield, Baker, Wiles and Wilson and their coterie for lockdowns of at least weeks if not months duration.

There was even the unprecedented occasion of Bloomfield telling a joint press conference alongside the Prime Minister that he had recommended a tougher and longer lockdown than she had been willing to accept. Unless this was a deliberately staged event to show the Government, not the officials, are in control, it is doubtful there has ever before been a case of such direct insubordination by a senior public servant in front of a Prime Minister.

But in the warped mood of kindness that now prevails, do not expect the Public Service Commission to hold him to account for this breach of public service etiquette if that were the case.

Although the Government will not admit it just yet, for fear of diverting public attention from the immediate task of getting on top of the current outbreak, it is clearly recognising the inadequacy of the lockdown mechanism as a long-term control measure.

Hipkins’ comments indicate it may be beginning to face, if not resolve in its own mind as yet, the reality that, as other countries have found with the arrival of the Delta variant particularly, elimination is no longer seen to be a viable long-term strategy. (The world has only ever eradicated one virus – smallpox – and learned to live with every other one.)

Shifting our focus from eliminating Covid-19 and its variants is not just an inevitability, but is becoming a matter of urgency, if we are ever to return to a form of normality.

Suspending Parliament for at least a week has more to do with shielding the Prime Minister from difficult questions about her vaccination rollout failure than protecting public safety.

The political trick will be achieving this rebalancing without it looking like a u-turn. Arguably, one of the reasons the Prime Minister has opted so far for this lockdown’s extensions being for a few days each time, rather than the weeks or even months her advisers are advocating, is part of this process. In doing so, she is making the point that lockdowns now are really a time-buying exercise, rather than the absolute control mechanism they were held out as last year.

This is where elevating vaccination rates becomes more important than ever. Quadrupling our current level of fully vaccinated people to around 80 percent of the population would give the Government far more options in terms of its current approach. It belatedly seems to have realised this, but its current push to increase vaccination still seems lopsided and in some cases unfair.

Why, for example, were those aged under 40 denied the opportunity to even book a date to be vaccinated until this week, while the teenage children of older parents can be vaccinated alongside them?

It seems chaotic and looks like more a desperate attempt to increase vaccination numbers as quickly as possible, than deliberate and rational policy. And why are we still so slow to vaccinate every frontline and emergency worker?

Moreover, mental health workers are already expressing concern that the resilience of New Zealanders may not be as staunch through these lockdowns as it was last year, especially if the lockdown period is prolonged. The Government, already under fire for a less than stellar performance on mental health issues generally, will be wary of pushing this boundary further.

What is clear is that just doing lockdowns the way they have been done in the past will not stop the spread of the Delta variant. The Government will be acutely aware of that, but, at present, because of its slothful approach to vaccination, it has few other options. 

In this context, suspending Parliament for at least a week has more to do with shielding the Prime Minister from difficult questions about her vaccination rollout failure than protecting public safety.

Being skilled political operatives (and remember from day one last year the government’s response has been overwhelmingly a politically choreographed one first, and a public health one a distant second) ministers will be looking to ensure the shift in stance now underway is fully completed before being exposed to any public scrutiny.

For that reason, the current lockdown will continue only so long as it takes the Government to get its new narrative clear.

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