Jacinda Ardern's leadership is being tested like never before as she prepares New Zealand for the impending "new normal" as Covid becomes endemic.
Conditioning Kiwis to "live with the virus" — as her Government moves beyond employing elimination strategies and instead weaponises the Covid booster programme — is not a simple feat.
It is the polar opposite to the campaign of fear that Ardern successfully employed in March 2020 when New Zealanders were urged to "stay home and save lives" as a pandemic took hold within an unvaccinated population.
The upshot is that New Zealanders have to date been spared the worst health impacts of the pandemic: no refrigerated trucks holding bodies when morgues became full of dead Covid victims, as for instance, was seen in New York City and Italy.
While there has been little Covid death, the Government's stance has exacted a price: mental health issues; the interruption of children's education; the too-long separation of families due to MIQ restrictions; struggling "hospo" and tourism businesses; the inability to source much-needed staff from offshore; and mounting government debt among them.
But many have also been happy with a status quo which kept others out and them "safe".
It is not a one-sided equation.
The Prime Minister has stroked that particular violin string brilliantly until now. But now she is having to urge New Zealanders to harden up and get prepared to look out for themselves when the expected Omicron surge comes. And that will mean more hospitalisations and more deaths and more people isolating or sick off work.
For political leaders — think US President Joe Biden or Australia's Scott Morrison who have already been there — a belated response to stocking up for this round of the pandemic simply risks further denting confidence in their administrations.
In New Zealand, the mood shift within the business sector has been moving against Ardern since late last year and has since spread more broadly.
The Charlotte Bellis affair and all its accompanying Taliban-hugging hyperbole threw more fuel on the political fire (there were obvious other options for the plucky journalist but her public play resonated particularly among other media).
Nor did the drop in Ardern's personal net approval ratings help the Prime Minister. She would have been surprised to see National leader Christopher Luxon quickly claim a more positive net approval rating (although to be fair many have yet to make their minds up about him).
It is her brand, after all, that won Labour the 2020 election.
But to get to the "new normal" it is necessary for the Prime Minister to get ahead of the sideshows and get the February 27 date out in public to spur laggards into getting their booster shots.
It is not surprising that Ardern showed an element of fragility when she fronted BusinessNZ on Thursday to announce her Government's updated "Reconnecting New Zealanders to the world" plan. Her body language was less confident.
Escalating domestic tensions — particularly relating to MIQ restrictions — had resulted in her Government bringing forward its planned announcement that the border would start to be progressively opened from 11.59pm on February 27 when fully vaccinated Kiwis and other currently eligible travellers from Australia will be able to self-isolate instead of going to MIQ.
But underscore this. The full reopening of the border will not take place until October. Prior to that there will be restrictions which will be gradually lifted over the seven intervening months from late February.
This means another tough winter for the tourism industry and further delays in the opening of the international students sector which were each major export drivers for New Zealand before Covid.
Helpfully there has been a shift in the rhetoric from Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins, who has cast shade on infection-rate modelling in light of international projections that tens of thousands of new community cases would be surging across New Zealand by this Waitangi Day holiday weekend.
Making the switch to the "new normal" also requires all the professional warners of imminent doom to silence themselves or at least try to impose some self-discipline over their comments.
Government officials have again let her and us down.
Too slow off the mark to order rapid antigen tests. Too slow off the mark with the booster programme, delaying bookings until mid-January. Too slow off the mark to vaccinate 5- to-12-year-olds. Too slow to get a steady supply of anti-virals and other therapeutics in place so that there is more than one line of defence to serious infection.
The Ardern Administration has not run quickly enough with advice from luminaries like Sir Brian Roche and businessmen Rob Fyfe and Sir Ian Taylor to give businesses more autonomy to drive results.
In her pre-Budget speech to a BusinessNZ audience in May 21, 2021, Ardern lauded the private sector as already playing an important role in the vaccine rollout plan — from logistics planning, to shipping of the vaccine, to workplace vaccination models, to simply encouraging and enabling their people to get vaccinated.
She had also expanded Fyfe's role as her business adviser on Covid to head a private and relatively informal business leaders forum.
The forum includes Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran, ANZ chief executive Antonia Watson, Fonterra chief executive Miles Hurrell, Mainfreight chief executive Don Braid, Fisher & Paykel Healthcare chairman Scott St John and Christchurch International Airport chief executive Malcolm Johns, Roche and BusinessNZ chief executive Kirk Hope.
It will meet again soon with her.
Ardern has leveraged her prime ministerial position and her international celebrity into a powerful personal brand.
There is a perception — warranted or otherwise — that little happens without her involvement.
On the agenda should be a new role for an "ass-kicker in chief" with direct power from Ardern to get stuff done.