The only good news about 64 new Covid cases in 48 hours is dropping the pretence Jacinda Ardern is pursuing elimination.
That strategy — which Ardern defines as "zero tolerance for cases" — was in practice relaxed 10 days ago when she moved Auckland to level 3 despite 22 new cases that day, including five unlinked.
Epidemiologist Michael Baker called it a gamble. He now says community transmission from the active cases was inevitable, and worries "we might see the numbers just keep on climbing".
Were elimination Ardern's goal, we would be back at level 4. After all, before last year's move from level 4 to 3, she waited until there were just one confirmed and four probable new cases, with none unlinked.
Similarly revealing was Ardern asking modeller Shaun Hendy to join the "podium of truth" to discuss how many might catch the virus, be hospitalised and die under different vaccination rates and assumptions.
Ignore the scary projection of 7000 annual deaths under an implausible scenario. More important are Hendy's more optimistic scenarios.
Even with the heroic assumption that 95 per cent of people aged 5 and over are fully vaccinated, and with moderate border controls, a strong test, trace, isolate and quarantine system and a range of other social control measures, Hendy suggests 708 of us could be infected with Covid each year, 23 hospitalised and three die.
Ardern publicly discussing Hendy's numbers created profound cognitive dissonance among Jacindamaniacs who argue such contemplations are akin to wanting to kill granny. By confronting acceptable death rates, Ardern is presumably now among the granny killers.
The upshot is her messaging has become incoherent. That's not only because "elimination" now means, on Hendy's realistic scenarios, thousands of infections, hundreds of hospitalisations and dozens of deaths each year.
Nor is it just because case numbers on which Ardern once locked in level 4 are now apparently low enough to justify level 2.
Ardern's new incoherence includes saying on some days that vaccination rates are considered in decisions about ongoing restrictions, and others days saying they aren't. Some days she implies liberalisation requires vaccination of 90 per cent of everyone aged 12 or over, and in every regional, socioeconomic, age and ethnic group. Other days Beehive strategists deny any target and imply liberties could be restored below 90 per cent coverage.
Insofar as "the science" ever drove political decisions on Covid, it clearly doesn't now.
Similarly, when Sir John Key wrote a column and Act and National made their most serious and constructive Covid contributions to date, the Beehive couldn't decide if their proposals would put us on a path to apocalypse or were government policy anyway.
Instead, it opted for a standard Beehive smear campaign, led by Finance Minister Grant Robertson, Covid Minister Chris Hipkins and a new addition to the cabaret, the Prime Minister's fiance, Clarke Gayford. National, the Beehive chortled, wants to give you Covid for Christmas. Ho ho ho.
Playing the person not the ball was Ardern's only option since she will inevitably pick up the Opposition's ideas very soon, as she has done ever since Covid emerged in Wuhan.
On cue, Beehive strategists insisted more "work" is under way on Ardern's liberalisation plans, about which they claim she will say more over coming weeks.
They swear normalisation remains her goal and not permanent social control. While unclear if Ardern's "work" involves more than plagiarising their proposals, the Opposition should be applauded for injecting urgency into Ardern's dithering towards post-vaccine realities.
If Ardern looks like a possum in the headlights, that's because the vaccination bus is about to run over her.
The percentage of eligible people booked for a vaccine or having had at least one jab appears stuck at 80 per cent, the point at which Hendy suggested 7000 people could die annually.
Numbers moving from being booked to a first jab are becoming derisory, with two-thirds of daily doses now second doses. Total jabbing is not even at half capacity and fast trending down, despite everyone knowing there are no queues.
But there are nevertheless 1.9 million people who are already double vaccinated, 45 per cent of the eligible population and 38 per cent of everyone.
They are being joined by 25,000 each day. Even at that disappointing rate, two-thirds of those eligible will be fully vaccinated by Guy Fawkes' Day and well over half of everyone.
There would then be 2.8 million people who would have met their responsibilities to their community and themselves become safe from Covid. Over 80 per cent of those eligible would be fully vaccinated by the end of November, or 3.4 million people.
They will not obey lockdown rules just because there are a million or so freeloaders, and nor should they.
The police can't arrest all 3.4 million, meaning Ardern will have lockdowns removed from her toolbox whether she plans it or not.
This is a major healthcare, social, economic and ethical problem but Ardern apparently isn't even thinking about it.
It demands the type of urgency beyond her and Ashley Bloomfield and requires tension to be put into the vaccination effort.
For as long as freeloaders believe Ardern won't liberalise until well over 90 per cent of every demographic has been vaccinated — a target not achieved anywhere in the world except Gibraltar and Pitcairn Island, and utterly improbable in New Zealand — then they have nothing to worry about.
Yet they would hold captive the 80 per cent of us who have done the right thing.
Paradoxically, the best way to reach the 90 per cent target is for Ardern to abandon it. She could announce that everything will return permanently to normal on the first day of summer, Wednesday, December 1. That includes the right of double-jabbed people to enter the country without quarantine.
The vaccination system has the capacity to deliver 90 per cent by December 1, and two months is ample for everyone who wants to be vaccinated to be double jabbed — and for their family, wider whānau, iwi and other community groups and NGOs to take responsibility to ensure the choice is real for everyone.
Forced medical treatment is unthinkable in a liberal democracy like New Zealand.
Unvaccinated freeloaders have a right to take their chances with Covid, hospitalisation, ICU or worse.
But property owners, leaseholders and renters must also have the right to decide who enters their premises, and employers the right to make vaccination compulsory for their workforces, including public sector employers.
These rights need to be clarified in law.
Taking control of the situation and setting a date would be a much better strategy for Ardern than standing by, borrowing $100,000 a minute, and watching social cohesion erode and fatalities rise as the 80 per cent who do the right thing refuse to have their liberties curtailed by those who won't.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.