Whoever the next Prime Minister is, they will allow Covid-19 into New Zealand.
Both leaders adamantly deny it now. Polling overwhelmingly demands they publicly support what I called in March the idyllic scenario — where New Zealand tries to live Covid-free, safe behind our 1000-mile moat, awaiting a vaccine.
Jacinda Ardern has had the political edge on Covid for the past three months. But the return of community transmission plus Judith Collins' tough brand may shift the politics towards the National leader.
Either way, that is mere theatre for the median voter. In reality, as World Health Organisation (WHO) boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says, there may never be a vaccine for Covid-19, despite Vladimir Putin's boasts and reported progress at Oxford University.
Even if a safe vaccine is developed, it would be an enormous challenge to produce nearly 8 billion doses for the global population, with no guarantee New Zealand would be a priority.
Effectiveness is also an issue. The flu vaccine has only two-thirds efficacy and is least effective among the elderly, who are most at risk.
With smallpox, the first vaccines were developed over 200 years ago. Despite the WHO committing to global eradication in 1958, it took 20 years to achieve it — and it remains the only disease in history to be completely defeated.
The historic evidence suggests, as the WHO says, that the world must learn to live with Covid-19.
Unless we are prepared to adopt even more radically restrictive measures at the border, the idyllic scenario is not feasible for New Zealand.
There could be no suggestion of reopening the border to non-New Zealanders for tourism, international education or business. Tougher restrictions on returning New Zealand citizens and residents would be required, including limiting their numbers. Even then, false negatives would still occur.
Border controls would need to go beyond people.
Ardern and Ashley Bloomfield have suggested that Covid-19 could have returned to New Zealand not through a failure of the quarantine system, but on frozen freight.
If this turns out to be more than idle speculation, Ardern and Bloomfield will need to extend their border restrictions from human beings to frozen imports. Given the profile of New Zealand's merchandise exports, retaliation by trading partners would be disastrous. We risk an autarkic approach that no one outside the most radical agrarian-socialist wing of the Greens could consider feasible.
Ardern and particularly Bloomfield were proven right this week that further outbreaks are inevitable. More will follow. If our only response is regular lockdowns, we are committing to one of the worst of Treasury's Covid-19 scenarios from back in April. That was scenario 4, where New Zealand would jump between lockdowns and periods at levels 1 and 2. The scenario suggested GDP would plunge by over 20 per cent and unemployment peak at 23 per cent. Debt would reach hitherto unimaginable levels.
Neither Ardern nor Collins would ever allow it.
Narrow economic measures aren't even the worst part of jumping between lockdown and normal life for years or decades.
Humans evolved to need connectivity, including beyond the nuclear family. Forming bands of hunter-gatherers, netball players or macramé enthusiasts is not an optional extra but essential to human mental health and survival. The cruellest punishment still allowed by our corrections system is solitary confinement. Happy hermits exist only in fiction.
People co-operated with and even celebrated Ardern's first lockdown. To a lesser extent, we are going along with her second. But if we stamp out this latest outbreak by, say, the end of September, how will we feel about being told in, say, December that there is again community transmission and another two-month lockdown lies ahead? How about the lockdowns of May and June and then October and November of 2021?
In reality, no Prime Minister could maintain the social control necessary to implement lockdown after lockdown, without some kind of martial law. Even then, the public would eventually rebel.
The strategies Ardern and Collins are publicly committed to are therefore not sustainable beyond this latest incident. Managing the entry of Covid-19 into the population sometime over the next 18 months is now the only realistic option. The data from both successes and failures overseas will be useful in working out how to do it.
Sweden offers insight into both(see table).
Broadly, Covid-19 represents no risk whatsoever to people under 20. Not a single Swede aged 10 to 19 has died, despite over 3500 being infected. We can be confident that every Mt Albert Grammar student will survive.
In fact, right up until age 50 or even 60, Sweden suggests Covid-19 represents no material risk to anyone, being an issue mainly for geriatric medicine. Even then, people aged 90 or over who become infected have more than a 50 per cent chance of survival.
The overall death rate in Sweden for people aged 90 or over is just 1 per cent.
Years or decades of periodic lockdowns cannot possibly be justified by Ardern or Collins.
As intensivists and geriatric medical experts share data to improve treatment, the death rate will surely fall even lower than in Sweden. Spread will decline as testing becomes faster and more accurate and as tracing apps become the norm. Hand-washing promotion will become a permanent feature of life, the way seatbelt and anti-cigarette advertising campaigns once were.
Periodic outbreaks will still happen but will just have to be tolerated and managed, as in Germany or South Korea. There will be some fatalities, mainly among the very old, just as there are for other respiratory diseases including influenza.
The current lockdown means the election must be delayed. But whenever it is held, the new Government will have to design a more sustainable way of managing Covid than regular lockdowns.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant. He was speechwriter for former National leader Todd Muller and assisted in the transition to new leader Judith Collins. These views are his own.