This week's NZ Herald-Kantar poll shows a nation united behind our current Covid strategy.
Fully 85 per cent of us agree with Jacinda Ardern, Judith Collins and everyone else who matters that we should stick with the elimination objective — as Ardern puts it — "for now".
Just 13 per cent of us are ready to start living — and some dying — with the virus today.
Prominent University of Auckland science communicator Siouxsie Wiles says she is relieved by the results, claiming unnamed domestic and international pundits have been "screaming" for New Zealand to drop elimination. She must watch more Fox News and read more obscure blogsites than I do.
Across every party in Parliament and the entire New Zealand media — North Island and South Island, right-leaning and left, populist and more scholarly — there has been universal public support, all things considered, for Ardern's bold but well-signalled move to put the whole country into level 4 the very day Delta was detected. No one in the New Zealand media disputes that Auckland must remain at level 4 for the time being, and probably for a good couple of weeks of zero community transmission.
This national consensus means New Zealand is on track to eliminate Delta this month. Our chances of success are most threatened by those fuelling division when none exists. Such efforts seem to be about creating a false stab-in-the-back narrative to shift blame from Ardern to her critics if this lockdown fails.
The more surprising part of the NZ Herald-Kantar poll is that a slim 52 per cent majority believes we should move away from elimination once more than 70 per cent of us are fully vaccinated.
That vaccination rate seems a bit low. Even those most eager to see borders return to normal talk more about 80 per cent, or higher. Vaccinologists seek over 90 per cent.
The good news is that polling by UMR suggests 82 per cent of us plan to be vaccinated, and over 70 per cent of those eligible have already at least booked.
Moreover, it will surely not be long before the age of vaccination is reduced further, from the current 12 years to 5. As someone who happily had my 8- and 10-year old daughters jabbed against every conceivable exotic disease to take them backpacking in India, the sooner the better.
With the polling suggesting just 6 per cent of New Zealanders are staunchly opposed to vaccination, there's hope we could get above 90 per cent early in 2022. After all, according to the Ministry of Health, New Zealand's vaccination rates for pneumococcal, polio, hepatitis B, haemophilus influenzae type b, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps and rubella are all at or above 90 per cent.
The high throughput at the new drive-through vaccination centres, established by the local health authorities and iwi in Auckland, also doesn't suggest vaccine hesitancy is much of a problem.
Criticism of Ardern is not that she again locked down the country on August 17. Everyone accepts she had no choice, given the circumstances. The criticism is why those circumstances prevailed.
The circumstances include inexplicable delays in vaccination procurement, the failure to vaccinate border and other frontline workers, the lack of saliva testing, the absence of Bluetooth tracking and tracing, mishaps at MIQ facilities, the non-expansion of ICU capability, and the brutality of the booking system for New Zealanders abroad needing to get home and towards those dying and their loved ones.
Being angry about the Ardern Government's operational failures is not the same as opposing her objective, strategy or individual decisions. In fact, it is essential those failures be highlighted and those responsible be held to account — in real time by the media, promptly by the Auditor-General and Brian Roche's continuous monitoring committee, and ultimately by the inevitable Royal Commission into New Zealand's Covid response and — if necessary — by the judiciary.
Strong support for the elimination strategy "for now" is also compatible with wanting to face up to what follows it, and when. In this, Ardern is guided by New Zealand's most distinguished epidemiologist, Sir David Skegg, and his expert committee. Insiders say she is less swayed by those who prefer to give their advice through the media, whether academics or pundits.
Skegg stands with Ardern, every other party in Parliament, the media and the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders in backing elimination "for now". He foretold the arrival of Delta and the need for a tough lockdown just before both happened. Equally, he said the elimination strategy would need to be further considered "in the coming months".
That consideration, he said, would need to take into account the "global situation and all the emerging evidence about Delta and new variants of the virus, as well as about the immunity conferred by vaccination". New Zealand's vaccination coverage, "including in particular regions and population groups, will influence our options".
Skegg is also clear that considerations other than epidemiology are inevitable but avoids pronouncing on issues of human rights, the value of liberty or the social, educational and economic impacts of various options. He accepts that Ardern has alternative experts on such matters, and that it is her unenviable job to weigh them up.
In reality, New Zealand is — as on pretty much everything, despite our national conceits — much more a policy-taker on Covid than a policy-maker.
Except for Australia and New Zealand, almost every other country has failed to eliminate Covid. In Australia, the Federal and New South Wales governments have now both given up. Victoria has just followed. Queensland seems to have succeeded in eliminating the current outbreak, with us likely to join them. But Covid will soon become endemic in Australia, along with Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas.
As the NZ Herald-Kantar poll indicates, a majority of New Zealanders has already recognised — even based on too low a vaccination rate — that the elimination strategy must eventually come to an end here. It is not treasonous to accept that. Nor to think we should start confronting and discussing it.
Most importantly, academics, the media, the Opposition and the public have a responsibility to continually put the blowtorch on Ardern to ensure her Government prepares for the end of the elimination era a hell of a lot better than it did the arrival of Delta. Cheerleading any government is the most likely way to make it lazy and sloppy.
With Covid, that risks costing people their lives.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.