"There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader" - attributed to Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin and Mahatma Gandhi
It may seem Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had a choice about moving to level 2 but she did not.
As demonstrated on Auckland's waterfront and Christchurch's Sumner Beach, New Zealanders have had enough of lockdown. With new Covid-19 cases almost as low as in every Australian state except Victoria, the Government' ability to enforce our exceptionally tough rules had eroded.
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Maintaining effective social control demanded the Prime Minister follow the public down to level 2.
The Government's Covid-19 response was never determined exclusively by "the science", whatever that means. At every crucial point, Ardern had to exercise judgment, balancing the suppression of the virus with longer-term public health concerns, the economic and fiscal impact, and maintaining public compliance.
From the moment she finally dropped her plans for a 7000-strong indoor Christchurch memorial service on March 15, Ardern's judgment calls have been mostly right, including Monday's.
There is no shame in Ardern considering public opinion in her decision-making, both when locking down and opening up. Nor economics. Even Otago University epidemiologist Michael Baker now concedes public health measures need to be balanced with getting people back to work. His advocacy is shifting to compulsory masks on public transport and the public health risks of alcohol-induced behaviour.
For all that, Ardern's level 2 announcement represents another massive throw of the dice, but this time with the odds stacked against her.
Twenty-somethings hitting the pubs in the next couple of weeks can read the international data as well as anyone. They know they face almost no risk of dying or even having serious symptoms from Covid-19.
Even in arguably reckless Sweden, just 0.2 per cent of its 1.3 million twenty-somethings have tested positive for Covid-19. Seven have died, the equivalent of three deaths in that cohort in New Zealand.
As long as they keep away from their parents and grandparents, twenty-somethings can hardly be criticised for accepting those odds and returning to their normal lives. The same is broadly true for all other healthy people, even those in their 60s.
Depending on which pre-lockdown modelling was credible, the lockdown has saved the lives of some thousands or tens of thousands of ageing baby boomers. It was the only possible call.
But now, as the Prime Minister's decision recognises, the costs of maintaining the rigour of the past seven weeks can no longer be justified, given case numbers are so low and with new knowledge of the relatively small number of people who are significantly at risk of becoming seriously ill or dying.
Thus, our dangerous but necessary transition from collective responsibility to greater individual choice begins. People over 70 or with diabetes or respiratory conditions seem best to stay isolated but everyone else now has greater choices over the risk they are prepared to bear.
Ardern has been criticised for sometimes talking to the public as if we are infants, but Monday's decision treats us all as adults. Will we blow it?
Ardern the human being will be desperately hoping her calculated roll of the dice does not lead to a second and perhaps more dangerous wave.
Ardern the national leader will feel the same, knowing she could not achieve public compliance for a second complete lockdown, and nor could its long-term public health, economic and fiscal impacts justify it.
Moreover, Ardern the politician knows her dreams of governing without NZ First and the Greens also depend on the dice coming up right – not just in May and June, but again in July and August when the transtasman border must surely re-open.
The Government was forced into risking level 2 because circumstances demanded it. Even Ardern's fiercest critics must hope her bet pays off.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant and lobbyist