Aucklanders are now deep into their fifth lockdown. In the next few days or so the city will pass its 100th day locked up at home since the pandemic began. Nothing like Melbourne, but difficult enough.
And the signs are not promising for an immediate end to this stretch of home detention. With the obligatory week at level 3 (or level 4 with takeaways), the earliest return to freedom looks like being the 22nd of this month. October seems more realistic.
This lockdown feels different. Taking the temperature of friends and colleagues, there seems less stoicism and more grumpiness. There is a weariness about people's responses when you ask how they are going.
Part of it is the novelty wearing off. Making your own bread might have been fun the first time around, but the third or fourth time, not so much. Another part is the sense that we shouldn't be here.
No matter how much the Government spins, people know it is the low and slow vaccination rate which has meant there is no other option besides lockdown, just as it has been in the eastern states of Australia.
Then there is the loss of control over your own life. That sense of frustration and powerlessness and an inability to make plans. For many, that loss of personal agency is debilitating.
Businesses are struggling. Parents with teenage children worry about the mental health of their kids. This is the second year that learning has been disrupted heading into end-of-year exams, and teenagers feel the absence of friends and the impact on their life more keenly than older people.
It doesn't help anyone that there is no sense of direction about what comes next. The Government is playing its cards too close to its chest. Whether they haven't thought things through or have a fear of subsequently being proven wrong, ministers aren't saying anything substantive about the future.
Instead, they keep talking about how well we have done so far. Which is all great but it is now in the past. I know from experience that politicians will wait a long time for the public to reward them for the good things they did last year.
People need hope. They need to know what is coming next. They need a sense of positive momentum.
And they also need to see a change in approach. There has been too much bumbling around, too much dissembling, and too much poor delivery for things to continue the way they have been.
The Government needs to start by setting a clear vaccination target and a date. It is surely now apparent people are willing to get their vaccinations. Notwithstanding the PM's comment, the problem is supply, not demand. The Government should set a target for the country to achieve by the end of the year, and go all out to achieve it. That would give everyone something to work towards.
It also needs to lay out how things will change positively once that target is reached. We now know the virus will become endemic worldwide, including in Australia. The public needs to see a new plan for managing outbreaks once most people are vaccinated. One that commits to a lot more freedom.
Helpfully, a poll out this week says a slim majority of the public want to move away from the "elimination" strategy once 70 per cent of people are vaccinated, so ministers know they will increasingly have the support of the public.
The game-playing at 1pm also needs to stop. The Government's management of the message risks insulting the intelligence of voters. The Ministry of Health should provide the data earlier in the day, and ministers should call press conferences when they have something significant to say.
It goes without saying that withholding information at a press conference, as happened on Thursday, does not build public trust. And ministers shouldn't expect the public's applause for doing things that should have been done months ago.
The Government also needs to overcome the objections of the Ministry of Health and its own ministers and enlist the private sector to assist with the next stage of the pandemic.
Whether it's a bunker mentality or ideology, it is ridiculous how many talented people who don't work on the public payroll have been excluded from the pandemic response.
Whether it's vaccine procurement, provision of MIQ facilities, saliva and antigen testing, contact tracing, hospital preparedness, or dragging the chain on letting pharmacies and GPs give the jabs, two-thirds of the country's capability has been left on the bench. That has to change. Doing so would visibly give the public confidence that the Government is open to new ideas and new directions.
The Government should set up a group of experienced private sector leaders to oversee pandemic procurement with a particular emphasis on vaccines, including booster shots, and an immediate rollout of large scale of saliva and antigen testing.
A second group could be hired to overhaul our MIQ facilities and get more people safely through the border in 2022. A high-powered group of medical professionals should be tasked now to do whatever it takes to ensure we have enough hospital capacity next winter to cope with our vaccinated not-locked-down state.
And finally, ministers should halt their health reforms. These were designed for another time. It is ludicrous they have continued to trundle along during the pandemic, and each passing month makes it more so. It is generally a bad idea to reorganise an army while it is fighting a war, and that surely applies here.
There is no evidence from the pandemic that greater top-down centralisation of the health sector will achieve better results, and in fact the reverse. From clipboard Charlies preventing pharmacies from providing vaccines to opaque dissembling with information, there is nothing in the ministry's recent performance that gives confidence that a national health service would do a better job than a local one.
The health sector does need reform in the future but not this reform and not now. Rip it up and let's start again later. Put the money into the front line.
- Steven Joyce is a former National MP and Minister of Finance.