Panic, shambles or shrewd political and economic calculation? Peter Dunne assesses the Government’s past weeks of managing the Covid-19 pandemic.

New Zealand’s national Covid-19 bubble burst apart at a shambolic Prime Ministerial post-Cabinet media conference a couple of weeks ago. The solid, predictable edifice that had been built up around our national response since March 2020 was shattered by an announcement that major changes were coming to the way we were dealing with Covid-19.

It seemed the days of a simple approach based on community lockdowns at various levels when outbreaks occurred, backed up by a sealing of the national borders and rigid controls on anyone seeking to enter the country were coming to an end as vaccination rates rapidly increased throughout the country.

Since then, there have been at least seven major announcements of changed policy directions, although few specific details have yet been provided as to precisely when these still projected changes might take effect. In many cases, the proposed changes are to implement measures the Government has previously bluntly rejected as unworkable or inappropriate, or even worse, because they were ideas raised by the Opposition, all of which adds to the mystery of what is really going on at present.

Questions are being asked whether the Government has lost its nerve because the current Delta outbreak in Auckland is proving so difficult to curb, or whether, given this Government’s hands-on, adept political management of the pandemic over the past 18 months, these changes were planned all along.

The most significant of the changes foreshadowed over the past fortnight is to replace the current alert level system with an apparently more flexible traffic light approach. Specific details of how this might work or when it will be implemented will be announced this Friday, but it is being touted as a major step forward from the rigid alert level system we have followed so far, which, as the current experience with Auckland’s latest prolonged lockdown is showing, is becoming increasingly difficult to enforce.

In typical form, the Government is dragging out the process of announcing this decision for maximum political impact. So far, we have been told at least twice that a traffic light system is being developed with only broad detail of what it might look like. Then on Monday, there was the announcement that a detailed announcement would be made at the end of the week.

Shortly after the first news about the traffic light system, it was announced – again without any supporting details or timetable – that Managed Isolation requirements for returning New Zealanders could ease, possibly for a much shorter – but still unfinalised – period than the current rigid two weeks in state detention. 

The next U-turn has been the still grudging acceptance that the days of the elimination strategy are over and that the focus is now much more on suppressing the spread of the virus and learning to live with it in the community. The Prime Minister’s language has shifted subtly but significantly over the past couple of weeks, to include much more reference to suppression and “getting on top of” the virus, with virtually no reference to elimination, as was her previous near-constant mantra. In part, this has been due to the significant increase in vaccination levels, and in part reflective of what is going on in the rest of the world.

This has been amplified by this week’s announcement that the Government will now be setting vaccination targets, something it has staunchly rejected previously, especially when they have been suggested by the Opposition and more recently by Sir John Key. What was wrong and unacceptable then is now suddenly the way to go. That underscores another aspect of the pandemic response that has been constant since its onset – namely, good ideas are only allowed to come from the Government or its narrow circle of advisers.

While the overdue move to vaccine targets is welcome, there is one aspect which, curiously, the Government seems to be paying insufficient attention to. In a passing comment last week, that received only brief coverage at the time, the Director-General of Health noted that of 170 hospitalisations in Auckland at that time, only 3 of the patients were vaccinated. In other words, the overwhelming majority of those ending up seriously ill or in hospital are unvaccinated.

So, why is this point not being hammered home more loudly? Why does television news, for example, not include an update of this statistic in its nightly bulletins? Is it because Māori and Pasifika are over-represented in Covid-19 hospitalisations because the way the vaccination programme was rolled out on an age basis means they still lag the general population in vaccination rates, and the Government does not want to upset community sensitivities about this, especially when it was advised early on that the vaccination programme was not going to work for Māori?

The next backdown has been to at last permit the introduction of rapid antigen saliva tests as an alternative to the intrusive and slow nasal swab tests that have been the norm since March last year. Nasal testing remans the gold-standard test, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to process in a timely manner, given the volume of testing now taking place. The delay in permitting saliva testing has been puzzling and frustrating, especially since such regimes have been in widespread use in many countries for some time now, and are much more convenient and easier to administer, and therefore a greater incentive for people to get tested when the need arises. We still have some way to go, though, before the introduction of the home-based daily testing systems now available overseas make their way to New Zealand.

One of the reasons to date for holding back on reducing community restrictions has been the fear that such relaxation would inevitably give rise to many more hospitalisations, posing the real risk that the health system could be overwhelmed. However, last week, and without much fanfare, the Minister of Health cast such fears aside, saying that in future most Covid-19 cases would be able to be treated at home, meaning there would be very little additional pressure on the public health system.

Lastly, there has been the apparent casting aside of the team of epidemiologists and others who have held so much sway with the Government and the media for the past 18 months. The Prime Minister and her colleagues have previously been almost obsessive in their professed reliance on the public health advice of this group, to the virtual exclusion of any other input.

Yet, if the epidemiologists and others are to be believed, the Government has stopped listening to them, or even consulting them. However, given the increasingly uncompromising nature of much of their recent advice and comment, it is easy to see why the Government might finally have realised the need for more balanced advice.

The breath-taking nature of the sweep of all these projected changes raises some intriguing questions. Has, as its critics suggest, the Government simply lost the plot because of the ongoing nature of the Auckland and related outbreaks, and is it consequently now in full-scale panic mode? That is possible, but unlikely, despite the chaotic media conference a couple of weeks ago.

More likely, the stubborn nature of the Auckland outbreak has provoked a rethink within the Government about its response. The problems with enforcement of the lockdown levels, and the economic and social disruption now occurring arguably outweighed the epidemiological calls for even tighter and longer restrictions to finally eliminate the virus in Auckland. It seems the Government came to the view that those calls were unsustainable and that a fresh approach was required.

At the same time, it was becoming ever mindful of the steps being taken in other countries to wind back restrictions as overall vaccinations rates increased. It may well be that, having previously rejected overseas experiences as not relevant to our situation, it came to realise the unrealistic nature of that view. In that regard, the Prime Minister’s favourable references last week to Denmark, which dropped all restrictions once it hit a vaccination level of 80 percent, as a country to note was significant. A few weeks earlier when Denmark announced its move, the New Zealand Government had scoffed at it.

Or perhaps the real reason is neither panic nor pragmatism, but politics. This Government has always been good at trying to milk the maximum political advantage from any situation without appearing overtly to do so. It has done this throughout the pandemic crisis, while protesting constantly that it has never paid a political card on Covid-19, despite the Prime Minister happily acknowledging the last election was the Covid-19 election.

So, perhaps what is happening now was really always intended as some sort of Christmas or end-of-year surprise – a comprehensive package to open-up the country to itself and the world again from the summertime, to make New Zealanders feel good about themselves (and the Government) once more?

If that were the case, and maybe that was what Sir David Skegg’s August report was really meant to foreshadow, then the prolonged Auckland outbreak has got in the way of things somewhat. In that event, with its eye always on the prize of returning New Zealand to normality, the Government decided to plough ahead as best it could, hence the last shambolic couple of weeks. And, after all this Government has always been far better talking about its plans than implementing them.

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