The political consensus on elimination has fractured, with National backing a suppression strategy and ACT hoping to mitigate the virus, but how far apart are parties’ Covid-19 plans? Marc Daalder reports

Analysis: The National Party’s plan for a pivot from eliminating Covid-19 to “vigorous suppression” has been met with fierce criticism from the Government. But it’s well within the realm of possibility that the Government takes New Zealand down a suppression pathway in the coming year.

The Government remains hopeful that Delta can still be eliminated in Auckland. Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins have insisted in recent days that zero new cases is still the end goal and Ashley Bloomfield told Newsroom in an exclusive interview that he wasn’t entertaining a scenario where elimination fails in the supercity.

“Every time we see an ember flare up, we will go in hard with testing, isolation and contact tracing. That will continue to be the plan,” he said.

If elimination does falter, however, then something like the suppression described by National would be the logical next step. That’s what experts like Michael Baker say could happen next, with Auckland likely needing to wait in Level 3 until enough of its population is fully vaccinated.

National isn’t alone in releasing a Covid-19 plan this week, with ACT having launched the third instalment of its own plan on Tuesday. That calls for a marked change in the approach to Covid-19, to something more like mitigation.

“We must move to a policy of harm minimisation. This policy should aim to reduce each of transmission, hospitalisation, and death from Covid at the least possible cost of overall wellbeing,” ACT leader David Seymour said.

Seymour shows off his reopening plan. Pool photo: Robert Kitchin

The proliferation of plans represents the fracturing of the political consensus on elimination. Since April 2020, Parliament has been nearly unanimous in supporting the elimination strategy. Now, there are three different strategies being proposed, each with their own health, economic and social implications.

ACT’s policy in particular is a radical departure from the consensus on the utmost importance of suppressing transmission. Seymour says he still wants passive measures in place to reduce the spread of the virus, but with even close contacts of Covid-19 cases not required to isolate under ACT’s plan, case numbers would likely spiral out of control.

National is more circumspect, arguing for a range of testing and tracing measures and continued active management of new contacts and cases. The party’s Covid-19 spokesperson Chris Bishop has indicated the public health measures under “vigorous suppression” would likely be more onerous (or at least more effective at reducing transmission, though the two usually go hand-in-hand) than those envisioned in Te Pūnaha Matatini’s disease modelling.

In other words, both Labour and National are reliant on high vaccination rates – and won’t talk about what happens if those can’t be achieved – alongside baseline public health measures that can be sustained in the long-term. Both see the borders reopening to vaccinated travellers and risk assessments based on country of origin.

Where they disagree is the end goal – Labour wants zero cases, National wants low, manageable case numbers – and the degree of risk they are willing to take. National has also been more willing to pin certain changes to vaccination thresholds than the Government has.

In essence, however, National’s pitch is not one of original ideas or great departures from elimination, like ACT’s is, but rather a promise that it will control the virus better than Labour can.

The question for National is whether voters will actually buy that from a party besieged by fortnightly coup rumours and with such a chequered history on the Covid-19 policy front – remember “an interesting series of facts”?

The Government is in turn dependent on the fading goodwill from the population holding out just a little longer, until either it can successfully re-eliminate Delta or else get vaccination rates high enough to pivot to suppression.

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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