For better or worse, New Zealand has committed to an elimination strategy.
This was not the original plan. As previously noted, even as late as Friday March 13, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was insisting that weekend's Christchurch memorial service would go ahead, at the 7000-seat indoor Horncastle Arena.
It wasn't cancelled until the next day, Saturday March 14.
Over the following days, Ardern continued to say her goal was to "flatten the curve" – "to slow the speed with which we will have [cases]" to enable the public health system to cope.
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It wasn't for another week, on Saturday March 21, that Ardern announced her four-level response system, and that we were at level 2, called "reduce".
Only when she announced, two days later, the urgent move to level 4, did Ardern's objective clearly move from "flattening the curve" to "eliminate". Many in the business community and elsewhere argued she was much too late.
When the inevitable Royal Commission reports, we will have our first considered assessment of the wisdom of all the decisions taken over those crucial weeks, and whether or not there was or is any real strategy. We will also learn the role of business leaders, senior officials, Cabinet colleagues and Ardern's overseas friends in pushing her to the much stauncher position she finally took on March 23.
The Ministry of Health reported on March 23 that New Zealand had 102 cases of Covid-19. The reason for urgently moving to level 4 was health officials saying they couldn't be certain where two came from, so they were being treated as community transmission.
Later today, the Treasury will provide the first numbers around the enormous human costs of the first couple of weeks of the lockdown. On Thursday, the Prime Minister will outline the pathway and criteria for getting out of it. A decision on whether to extend the original exit date of Wednesday April 22 will be made on Monday.
The Prime Minister is under pressure from health officials focused on Covid-19 to extend by at least a week. Until there has been around 14 days of no community transmission, they doubt moving from level 4 is safe.
Others with an eye on family violence, mental health and the wider social and economic picture are keener for the lockdown to end as originally scheduled. Those whose jobs or businesses are at risk also need the economic wound cauterised.
On balance, though, it is better for the former group to prevail, at least in the short term.
Having opted, at enormous cost, for an elimination strategy, the worst possible outcome is that it fails.
Even despite the lockdown, we are coming up to 1350 cases of which at least 27 and perhaps well over 100 are from community transmission. Meanwhile the number of clusters with more than 10 cases continues to creep up.
If we finally shut the country down at enormous cost when there were two possible cases of community transmission, we can hardly justify re-opening it when there may be over 100. That would quickly risk taking us back to an even worse position than we were in on March 23, giving Ardern no choice but to consider a second and even longer lockdown. That would be catastrophic no matter what she chose.
Having committed to elimination, the focus must be on absolutely ensuring it has worked and then carefully relaunching economic activity. As quickly as possible, the test for whether an activity can recommence must change from "essential" to "safe". The construction industry, including builders of roads, rail and houses, can surely get back to work very soon while practicing physical distancing. So too the courts, and accountants and bank managers who soon need to visit clients in crisis. More difficult is getting primary schools and early childhood centres reopened to allow more people back to work.
The Prime Minister's pathway and criteria must give complete certainty about when all such steps will be taken, conscious that each one risks the virus returning and a new lockdown needing to be considered – or whether we may need to face facts that elimination has failed and return to her original "flatten the curve" strategy.
If it takes another week or two of lockdown to eliminate community transmission and to get all these issues decided and clearly communicated, then so be it. Expect to know more on Thursday.
Disclosure: Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant and lobbyist. He has a range of clients working on issues associated with Covid-19. These views are his own.