Monday, 8 March 2021

Free Press, 8 March 2021


If the Valentine’s Day outbreak has done anything positive it is this: The difference between New Zealand’s performance and the Government of New Zealand’s performance has finally been contrasted.

There’s a saying in politics that you can’t argue with results. New Zealand has an enviable record in the Covid-19 era, with fewer infections and deaths, and lighter restrictions (over a year) than almost any country.

Little of that can be attributed to the efforts of the Government - our response has been successful because of the actions of New Zealanders - but you can’t argue with results. No government faced an easier task, given our isolation, population age and density, wealth, and civil society. That may be true, but to point it out is to argue with results.

The comedy of errors over the past three weeks has finally shown that the Government’s performance and New Zealand’s results are actually different things. The Government failed to fully trace a cluster of fifteen cases.

Instead of saying, ‘we should have done better,’ it decided to blame the people. The Prime Minister publicly denouncing citizens who have no platform from the highest podium in the land was unseemly. When it revealed they hadn’t actually broken any rule, the Government had remembered to make, it was embarrassing.

The excuse that the Government had texted someone fifteen times backfired. What it really told us is that there was no system other than sending endless unanswered texts to Covid-19 contacts.

Triumphal announcements that the Government had secured vaccines seemed out of place while Auckland was locked down and the Government had a tenuous grasp of events. More worrying is that, nearly three weeks later, we have no better idea when vaccinations will arrive, when they will be distributed, or what being vaccinated will actually mean.

It would be easy to indulge in a little schadenfreude. This jingoistic Government’s little dances, team of five million, and heavily scripted public service announcements are falling apart. Unfortunately, the situation is too serious for that.

The Valentine’s Day outbreak and associated lockdowns were the final straw for many businesses that survived two lockdowns but not this one. The company liquidation pages are filling up, with the IRD behind many wind ups.

The greater problem is that we cannot afford to stand still, because the Covid situation is moving. We need not only to deal with the Government’s current failings, but look forward to the Covid world of Q3 and Q4 this year, and beyond.

That world is being reshaped by four big trends. Mass vaccination is changing the parameters of the pandemic. New variants are having the opposite effect, making it less predictable. Governments around the world are appending their Covid responses with new testing and tracing technologies in response. The public are becoming fatigued with the required measures, as are public finances.

Those trends will make our current approach unsustainable. It will be harder to justify such costly restrictions when vaccinated people can fight off the virus more easily and have less chance of passing it on to others. Vaccines will crowd out other responses.

New variants may undermine vaccines, at least temporarily, but they may appear seasonally for years, so will require a response that can last that long. We can’t seriously lock down and borrow money every time a new variant gets out, for as long as it takes.

Fortunately, testing and tracing technologies allow for more surgical responses to outbreaks that don’t kill the patient. The problem is that New Zealand isn’t using any of them.

New Zealand’s economy has recovered faster than expected, but even the bravest Finance Minister would think twice about repeating the monetary and fiscal sugar hit required last time. Ditto the level of compliance, the air was more defiant this time. Fatigue will compound the vaccine, variant, and technology issues, increasing demand for a new response.

The good news is that the Valentine’s Day Outbreak has the potential to be a turning point, if we want it to be.

Throughout the pandemic, ACT’s mantra has been to make constructive criticisms when necessary and helpful suggestions where possible. Stay tuned for more of that approach later this week.