National’s insistence that the country reopen in six weeks come hell or high water would see disastrous outcomes, particularly for Māori, Marc Daalder writes

Comment: Both National and the New Zealand hospital system are lucky we’ll never experience the consequences of the party’s reopening plan.

If implemented, the plan would see Covid-19 moving through the community while too many Māori and young people remain unvaccinated. Hospitals could be strained under the burden of Covid-19 cases. And these outcomes would of course prove to be horribly unpopular, sparking backlash against National itself.

While much of the focus on Wednesday was on its economic promises, including tax cuts for businesses and all income earners and support for the tourism sector and RSE employers, the path forward was contingent on a newly set reopening threshold: 85 to 90 percent double dosed vaccination rates across the eligible population or December 1, whichever comes first.

Almost certainly, December 1 will come first.

As it stands, 85 percent of the eligible population has now had their first shot. But because around 5 percent are overdue for their second dose, we probably need to see a first dose rate of 90 percent if we want to end up with 85 percent fully vaccinated.

Given the three week gap between doses and two extra weeks after the second shot before full immunity sets in, we’re unlikely to hit 85 percent fully protected by December 1 – that would require getting 5 percent of the eligible population (or 210,000 people) to get their first shots in just the next week. For reference, Super Saturday saw 39,000 people get their first shot and it’s been nearly a month since more than 20,000 people got their first dose on any other single day.

Then there are the equity concerns. Beyond the high level vaccination target, National also wants to see 80 percent of each DHB population and 70 percent of each age band fully vaccinated. A quarter of DHBs have yet to hit that target with first doses.

Such a target would also leave Māori behind, given that just two-thirds have had their first dose.

In that context, it’s impossible for National to say the December deadline is based on any science or evidence. There won’t be some magical reduction in transmission of Covid-19 in vulnerable, unvaccinated communities as the calendar turns from November 30 to December 1.

National has the luxury of being in Opposition, where it can float poorly-thought-out policies without worrying that they’ll actually be implemented and lead to mass death of Māori and Pasifika and the collapse of the hospital system.

That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be thinking these issues through before proposing hard deadlines like December 1.

National leader Judith Collins is concerned about the number of elective operations that have been postponed in the latest outbreak. But does she seriously think hospitals will be back to operating at full capacity once the country opens up, even while more than 600,000 eligible people remain unvaccinated and while 800,000 children are not even eligible to be immunised?

Chris Bishop, National’s Covid-19 spokesperson, says the party is following in the footsteps of Victoria and New South Wales. But both of those states have seen their hospitals swamped with Covid-19 cases even with Level 3-style restrictions in place. In New South Wales, now at the tail end of their outbreak, there are still 124 people in ICU with Covid-19 and another 428 in hospital.

On a per capita basis, that would be 75 cases in ICU and 262 others in hospital in New Zealand. Recall that Auckland hospitals struggled with just nine cases in ICU earlier in the present outbreak.

Bishop told Newsroom he thought hospitals in the two Australian states had coped with Delta. That’s despite the fact that, at the peak of New South Wales’ outbreak, two thirds of cases requiring hospitalisation had to be treated at home due to a lack of capacity in the public hospital system.

National’s plan would also see large swathes of the South Island move immediately to Level 1 and then scrap the alert level system entirely. National’s finance spokesperson and Dunedin-based List MP Michael Woodhouse said the “South Island no longer wants to live in fear”.

No one wants to live in fear, but what will the people of West Coast say when their 56 in-patient hospital beds are filled up? Right now, just 60 percent of the region is fully vaccinated and 6200 people haven’t had even a first dose. Across the South Island, there are nearly 150,000 eligible people who remain unvaccinated and therefore vulnerable to hospitalisation or death from Covid-19.

Around 10 percent of cases in the current outbreak have required hospitalisation. Even if that’s a slight overestimate, thousands of South Islanders could still be hospitalised if alert levels are scrapped without regard to vaccination rates.

It would be hard to avoid living in fear in a situation like that.

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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