The Situation

Over the weekend, the number of new cases actually declined. This is encouraging but we should remember South Korea. It thought it had COVID-19 beat by detecting and isolating its first 30 cases. Then case number 31 was a ‘super spreader’, spreading the virus to thousands of others. To beat the virus and lift restrictions after four weeks will require an intelligent approach from everyone for the remaining three and a half weeks.

What Is Safe Versus What Is Essential

The Government has taken the view that in order to function under the lockdown, something must be deemed essential. We view this as a mistake. If the objective is to stop the spread of COVID-19, then the test should be whether something can be done safely, not whether it is essential. Moving to a test of safety rather than necessity would be a much better way of fighting the virus while salvaging businesses.

‘Essential’ Compromises ‘Safety’

The Government rightly says it is essential to have food available. Once food is available in an area, no other activity is permissible. But making people travel further to visit a smaller number of bigger and busier stores undermines our goal of reducing the spread of the virus. Supermarkets have remained open because they are essential but they have only undertaken safety mechanisms more recently. Under a safety approach, only food stores with safe processes would be allowed to open, but all stores with such processes would equally be able to open.

Infantilising Us

‘Essential’ is a conditional term. It can’t stand alone. It only makes sense if you complete the sentence. “Doing X is essential… if your goal is Y.” By deciding what is essential, the Government is deciding your goals. It erases freedom at the most basic level. The Government will decide what you need, and by extension what you want. Instead of the objective test ‘can this be done in a way that is safe’ we are facing a subjective test ‘does the Government think you need this.’ This level of government power is not sustainable.

Breakdown Of The Rule of Law

Subjectivity leads to absurdities and a breakdown of the rule of law. The Government has decided that eating halal meat is a goal important enough to justify opening some butcheries. Driving to the beach for a walk or a picnic is not. Which one is safer? More worryingly, the Government has decided weekly papers are not essential but dailies are. The Government now has arbitrary ability to threaten media. This is an outrage but the other media are not sticking together.

Police Overreach

One consequence of Government deciding what you should want is Police overreach. The Police Commissioner’s Rambo routine of euphemistic threats to the public - ‘you might have to visit our place’ - is a major misstep. He is trying to demand respect instead of earning it. Anecdotal reports are that frontline officers, facing a time of great uncertainty, are following suit. The Police risk alienating all New Zealanders the same way they have alienated licensed firearms owners over the past year. We need community policing, not community intimidation.

A Pointed Example

A husband was with his pregnant wife for two days. There was no safety reason for him to leave. In fact, it was worse for him to move away from his ‘bubble’. However, in a world where government agencies decide what is essential, the hospital called the Police and had him removed. In an ‘essential’ world, witnessing the birth of your firstborn is not essential even if it is safe.

Trust The People

Underpinning the ‘essential’ approach is a belief that people can’t be trusted to judge what is safe. (Can I do this without coming within two metres of others?, without touching things other may have touched?).

Safety Approach: Essential For The Recovery

We are going to have to recover as an economy. Free Press is approached daily by businesspeople in a state of despair. Their working capital may or may not last the first four weeks, it certainly won’t last further. Being able to operate under a safety approach is, to borrow a term, essential. Essential to what? Essential to people protecting their livelihoods in the coming months. Essential to preserving the rule of law. Essential to upholding the dignity of New Zealand citizens. Essential to ending the paternalistic politics to which we’re daily subjected.

What Would A Safety Approach Look Like?

A safety approach would involve a basic set of rules that people must follow. A two metre rule (Free Press regrets this would exclude televised dance competitions). Can you do this whilst remaining two metres from others? Yes or no? A ‘touched object’ rule. Can you do this without touching objects others outside your household have touched? Yes or no? A regular testing approach. Can we guarantee regular testing and contact tracing is possible? Yes or no? Obviously there is more to do, but we need to start developing a safety approach rather than an essential approach, pronto.