Monday, 23 August 2021

Free Press, 23 August 2021


The Haps

After 18-months the Government’s COVID response looks indistinguishable from the first lockdown. What has it been doing? Isolation and cheap money delayed New Zealand re-joining the world, but Delta is here to hurry things along. In ‘civilian’ news, Kelly Dennett’s write up of ACT’s rise has been Stuff’s most popular non-COVID story and prompted many people to join the Party.

What Happens Next

The Government will live in 24-hour cycles. Most of the media will report in sync. The rest of New Zealand needs a more open, adult and honest conversation about what happens in the weeks and months beyond tomorrow.

What options does an island nation of five million people have if nobody else practices elimination, in the face of a new variant? Free Press believes the Government needs to make five changes.

First, the Government needs to admit fault and shift its mindset. Not only has it failed at executing its preferred option, but it’s failed to keep their options open. There are four defences but three of them, testing, tracing and vaccinating were not going hard, let alone early.

Testing wastewater weekly for a virus that incubates in a few days was nuts. Combined with the Government’s allergy to saliva testing, it gave the outbreak a couple of days head start.

Tracing never reached the ‘gold standard’ with pre-Delta variants. The NZ COVID Tracer app was little better than useless with four million people clocking half a million scans a day, but the Government ignored that for a year. More later on vaccination.

But the Government has gone hard and early on the fourth and costliest defence, lockdown. Elimination by lockdown is fiscally, economically, and humanly unsustainable.

Second, the Government needs to reorganise its response to get more advice than the Ministry of Health can offer and share it publicly. Bring all the ‘team of five million’ into its confidence. An Epidemic Response Unit drawing from across Government, and the private sector, should be established to chart the way forward.

Third, it should practice openness and transparency on COVID. It should publish its data and lay out scenarios for everyone to consider. Releasing three letters from Sir David Skegg totalling 18-pages, four months after his engagement as Strategic Advisor was laughable.

Do nothing is always the default option, but it’s almost unthinkable now. The Government’s fear factory, lack of vaccination, and lack of testing and tracing capability mean cold turkey would lead to carnage and chaos. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be spelled out faithfully by the new Epidemic Response Unit, adults have the right to make up their own mind.

The status quo is also unsustainable. Elimination is one thing, elimination after the rest of the world abandons it (Australia is teetering) is North Korean. In a Delta environment, elimination cannot be sustained without level four lockdowns for weeks at a time. That’s a recipe for fiscal, monetary, and human fatigue. Amazon will be just the most high-profile business to divest from New Zealand. Still, in a free and democratic society, it should be spelled out too. We can handle it.

That leaves the option of a managed reconnection with the rest of the world. Give everyone the chance to be vaccinated. Boost testing and contact tracing. Scrap the ridiculous ban on self-testing kits. The question is how quickly can it happen?

Fourth, the vaccine program needs to be reimagined and turbo charged. More sources, new ways of delivery. The Government should set a target of 100,000 doses per day. Six million in 60 days and all done before November.

Fifty thousand vaccinations per day sounds good but it means everyone’s had one by December. Chris Hipkins says that the only way to get more would have been to go to other suppliers. That was then, he should go back to Pfizer and tell them things haven’t gone to plan and he’d like to renegotiate.

Medsafe approved the Janssen Vaccine six weeks ago. The Prime Minister said Cabinet would consider rolling it out, we haven’t heard anything. Moderna, the other MRNA vaccine is better. Medsafe hasn’t approved it, but why wait for them. What are they going to tell us that 70 million Americans who’ve had it don’t already know? Is the New Zealand Government against AstraZeneca? Better not tell the Pacific Islanders we gave it to.

More doses could engage 5,000-odd vaccinators who’ve trained but aren’t active. Eden Park and the ASB Showgrounds should become drive through centres. Brian Tamaki could even be induced to perform a miracle on his Anti-vaxxer wife and lead his flock to the vaccination station. With observation time down to 15 minutes, Auckland Transport users could easily be vaccinated while they wait. More seriously, schools should have a day when everyone gets vaccinated.

Fifth and final, the Government should plan for the economy to recover against a backdrop of rising interest rates and a hundred billion dollars of extra debt. Time is running out.