New Zealanders may well be frustrated by the piecemeal extensions to Level 4 restrictions, but is the alternative that much better?

One and a half weeks into the latest outbreak and New Zealand finally has a little certainty.

After 11 days of piecemeal extensions, Auckland and Northland now expect to be in Level 4 through the middle of September and the rest of the country is looking forward to Level 3 from Wednesday.

At least some of that was already a foregone conclusion. New Zealanders are no stranger to the concept of 14-day transmission cycles of the virus, which governed how Cabinet managed the alert levels in both outbreaks last year.

As early as last Friday, experts were already warning that we’d probably need to see out the full 14 days before anyone could feel comfortable stepping down. How South Islanders got it into their minds that they might be an exception to this rule is unclear. But at least they’ll be glad to have the certainty of a move to Level 3 next week, assuming nothing worrying crops up over the weekend.

That certainty has been sparse over the course of this outbreak so far.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern understandably responded to a single case of Delta by announcing a snap three-day lockdown for most of the country, and seven days at Level 4 for Auckland and the Coromandel.

By the time last Friday rolled around, Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield recommended Auckland’s restrictions be extended another week, alongside an extension to this past Tuesday for the rest of the country. Ardern accepted Bloomfield’s second recommendation but refused at the afternoon press conference to confirm that Auckland would need at least an extra week in Level 4.

“Look, what I would say for Auckland, and I think they’ve been around Covid long enough to know that when you are really a hot spot, that does lend itself to you often having to be extra cautious, but again, we’re bringing all of New Zealand through to that Monday decision,” she said.

Sure enough, on Monday, the Auckland lockdown was pushed out another week while restrictions everywhere else were extended through to Friday.

What ACT leader David Seymour describes as “one drip fed extension at a time” will surely have frustrated New Zealanders.

From a health perspective, it was understandable that Ardern will have wanted to check in on the restrictions from time to time to make sure they were still necessary. But again, that 14-day rule meant pretty much everyone could have guessed Level 4 was here to stay for a minimum of two weeks.

By the time the first Friday hit, the case count was already at 31 and rising, with the virus having spread to Wellington. Was there really a chance at that stage that any part of the country would drop to Level 3 after just a week of restrictions?

In the end, Bloomfield’s advice from late last week was heeded. But the theatrics in the interim were driven by a political desire to offer the hope of eased restrictions more quickly.

It’s the struggle that Ardern has been waging for 18 months – not wanting to politicise the pandemic but having to grapple with the fact that these decisions are by necessity political. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that the Government makes its decisions solely on the health advice. Last March, Bloomfield recommended closing the borders to everyone, including New Zealanders – fortunately Cabinet didn’t heed that advice. Likewise, the Ministry of Health’s pushback on masking has been ignored by Cabinet in favour of a more cautious approach.

Ardern’s calculation about the usefulness of the piecemeal extension approach may have been off, if the anecdotal frustration of businesses and everyday New Zealanders in lockdown is anything to go by.

Perhaps sensing this, she may now have lurched too far in the other direction, flagging Auckland may be in Level 4 for a total of four weeks. Given the unpredictability of the virus and the lack of sight over the potential extent of the outbreak, it’s hard to believe there’s much confidence in Cabinet or the Ministry of Health about what the situation will really look like in two-and-a-half weeks’ time.

Of course, if things turn out better than expected, Ardern could always announce an early end to Level 4 in Auckland. Sure, people say they want certainty, but what they really want is to know when lockdown is going to end.

I don’t imagine many people would complain if the Government pulled the plug on Level 4 earlier than expected.

Marc Daalder is a senior political reporter based in Wellington who covers climate change, health, energy and violent extremism. Twitter/Bluesky: @marcdaalder

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