Labour has largely kept silent on its own views on when and how to move New Zealand to a new phase in dealing with Covid-19, relying expressly on ‘officials’ and ‘the science’.  But it can’t continue to conceal its hand for long.

During one of the frequent foreign exchange crises that bedevilled Britain in the mid-1960s Prime Minister Harold Wilson coined the immortal phrase, “A week is a long time in politics.” Since then, it has become a metaphor for how quickly things can change in the political environment.

A week ago, when the Prime Minister signalled that, everything else being equal, Auckland would move down an alert level this week, there was no public hint of the Waikato cases that become known at the weekend, let alone any suggestion of the new concept of a “bespoke” Level 4 that that specific area has now become subject to. The general feeling at that time was that we were just working our way through the alert levels as usual when case numbers dropped, and that within a few weeks the country would be looking at a return to Level 1. It all seemed ordered and predictable.

But looking back over the period since the universal Level 4 lockdown was imposed on August 17, a somewhat different perception emerges. If a week still remains a long time in politics, then the last five weeks have been a veritable lifetime.

When announcing the lockdown that evening the Prime Minister said it would be “short and sharp, not long and light.” Over five weeks later, the people of Auckland who have just endured the longest Level 4 lockdown yet, and those living in the South Island where there have been no Covid19 cases detected since May 2020, but they remain under a Level 2 lockdown, might beg to differ.

In the event, the lockdown has been neither “short and sharp” nor – at this stage – “light and long”. It has been more uncertain than that in various ways. First, there have been discordant views at various times from ministers. Early in the latest lockdown Covid-19 Minister Hipkins seemed to suggest the days of the elimination strategy might be coming to an end but was quickly shot down by other Ministers. Yet noticeably the Prime Minister herself has been speaking recently far less of elimination and much more about “getting on top of” the virus. Last weekend, Health Minister Little speculated there will be no more Level 4 lockdowns, a claim that the Prime Minister swerved to avoid countering directly on Morning Report on 21 September.

Also, the level of non-compliance with the Level 4 lockdown rules has been higher than during any previous lockdowns. From the high-profile cases of the couple fleeing to Wanaka, through to the gang members crossing the border to get KFC, not to mention the more than 80 arrests in Auckland alone for non-compliance, it is clear the public tolerance of the restrictions imposed is waning rapidly, and that enforcement is becoming more difficult as they go on. People are simply sick of lockdowns and that feeling seems to be hardening.

On the other side, the favoured clique of epidemiologists, who have relished the unusual chance to be in the media, seem unrepentant in their call for ongoing strong restrictions, possibly up until Christmas time. For example, in a debate on First Up last week, Dr Michael Baker seemed unwilling and unable to accept the view of highly regarded international consultant on infectious disease, pandemic preparedness, and biosecurity, Dr Amesh Adalja, that while New Zealand was right to impose lockdowns at the outset of the pandemic last year, continued reliance on the lockdown mechanism was an “excessive response”, and a ”policy failure” only to be used a “last resort when nothing else works”. For Baker and his colleagues, lockdowns seem to remain the major weapon in their pandemic response armoury, even if the rest of the world is largely moving on from them.

And herein lies the problem and the challenge. Since the emergence of the pandemic last year the government has persistently said its response has been governed by the health implications alone, and that political considerations have played no part in its calculations. As recently as Monday of this week Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson was declining to answer media questions about the options available to the Government in the wake of the Waikato cases because the Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield had not given his advice at that point. But the stauncher and more vocal the clique of epidemiologists becomes, the more difficult it is for the Government and its own health officials to accept their advice uncritically. And, consequently, the more awkward its claim to be following the health advice solely starts to look.

That is why the Government’s claim that political considerations have played no part in its calculations thus far is palpable nonsense. From the outset, as any astute government would, it has kept close political control of the way the pandemic response has been presented. The contrived daily media conferences, the selective approach to journalists’ questions, and the unyielding unwillingness to include the non-government parties, and on occasion Parliament as a whole, in any direct involvement in this public health issue make it clear that the Government, as is its prerogative, has sought to milk every available ounce of political advantage it can from the crisis. And, after all, it was the Prime Minister herself who described the last election as a referendum on the Government’s handling of Covid-19, conveniently taking the focus off issues like housing, climate change and reducing poverty.

But it is becoming increasingly difficult to continue that pretence. On August 17, the discovery of one Covid-19 Delta variant case in Auckland was enough for the Director-General of Health to advise the Government to plunge the entire country into a strict Level 4 lockdown. But now, with hundreds of cases under treatment in Auckland and new community cases being detected there in double figures each day, the Government has decided to relax Auckland’s lockdown. According to its health advisers, this level of cases is somehow different and now a less serious risk than the original case which prompted this round of lockdowns. Meanwhile, the clique of epidemiologists is warning that this is a risky move and that further longer restrictions are looming if it does not work.

Despite the Government’s insistence that it is still relying primarily on the health advice, the ground is shifting. For example, once the Labour Mayor of Auckland Phil Goff spoke out unusually strongly against the Level 4 lockdown being continued in Auckland it was clear its days were numbered, whatever the health advice may have said. At the same time, comments from prominent business innovator Sir Ian Taylor and Professors Des Gorman and Graham Le Gros that the advisory team working with the Government needs to broaden its base beyond its single health focus, suggest it is becoming more difficult for the Government to hold this line. This is especially so at a time when social tensions are rising, jobs are being lost, and people, especially the increasing numbers being vaccinated, are becoming more disgruntled that no matter what they do, the restrictions carry on.

Throughout the past few weeks there has been one voice curiously absent from this growing debate. Believe it or not, that voice is the Government. Despite all the media conferences, the frequent interviews and apart from the isolated comments of ministers Chris Hipkins and Andrew Little, we do not actually know what the Government itself thinks about what lies ahead. Notice how, whenever the Prime Minister is questioned, she always predicates her answers with either “the health advice tells us” or “the Director-General recommends”. But we have rarely heard what the Prime Minister, let alone most of her ministers, think themselves. When the government did release a roadmap for the future it was a pale echo of the work of Sir David Skegg’s taskforce, with little detail or specificity. Overall, the Government has preferred to let its officials do the talking.

Nevertheless, by stealth, we have come on quite a journey since August 17 when no cases of Covid-19 in the community were acceptable, to now not only tolerating several hundred active cases in the community, but also more cases each day. In short, whether the Government cares to admit it or not, we are in the process of quietly abandoning the elimination approach in favour of what looks more like a focus on stalling and suppressing the virus’ spread. But there has been no Government acknowledgement or explanation of why or how this change has come about, or what it expects to happen next. Everything seems to be just left to evolve as circumstances unfold.

It is quite a cunning strategy. It commits the Government to nothing. By saying it is still reliant on the health advice while remaining silent on its apparently quietly shifting approach, the Government keeps its hands clean while neatly leaving its health officials able to be hung out to dry if things go wrong again, as the favoured clique of epidemiologists seems to think is likely. But if everything works out, and Christmas is under Level 1 conditions, the Government will be first to lap it up and claim the credit.

It is more of the shrewd political hand the Government has played since March last year under the guise of being focused solely on the protection of public health. But over the next few challenging weeks it will become increasingly difficult to keep that hand as cleverly concealed. Government, after all, is always ultimately about politics.

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