In November, Health Minister Chris Hipkins announced "New Zealand will be at the front of the queue" for Covid vaccinations. Four and a half months later, it turns out we are closer to the back.
Would you worry most if it turns out that Hipkins was flat-out lying back in November? Or would it be worse if he had somehow convinced himself his pledge was true? Or is the most terrifying explanation that his words were true when he uttered them but ministerial and bureaucratic incompetence have since pushed us down the line?
Fine-grained distinctions among these options can be left for the inevitable Royal Commission, assuming it is led by a genuine truth-seeker and not just some retired judicial Jacindamaniac.
In the meantime, microbiologists, epidemiologists and vaccinologists who sounded quite bullish about the vaccination programme back in January are now much more frustrated.
There will not be a single new agency with extraordinary powers to carry out this massive and hopefully once-in-a-century task. The Government says it just doesn't do that sort of thing — a claim belied by the cruel hoax of Andrew Little's $50 million standalone Pike River Recovery Agency.
Instead, the rollout is being managed on business-as-usual terms by a troika of the Ministry of Health, the 20 District Health Boards (DHBs) and iwi. These bureaucrats are the same lot responsible for the calamitous 2019 measles outbreak and the influenza vaccine shortage the same year.
Were Ministry of Health director general Ashley Bloomfield not rescued by Covid and the Prime Minister's masterful management of press conferences, he would have a very different reputation from the one he has established over the last year.
But Bloomfield is not to blame for there still being an unwieldly 20 DHBs. The Government came to office wanting to reduce that number, perhaps to just one national Health service. Heather Simpson was brought in to conduct a review. But her working group's report has gone the same way as those on tax, welfare, school governance, the Auckland port shambles and mental health.
On the vaccination programme, the process by which retired health professionals or emergency service workers can volunteer to be trained and employed to do Covid jabs is still unclear. We do know the colour for the vaccination PR programme will be purple, instead of yellow.
There is some progress vaccinating frontline health and border workers, ministers, MPs and senior mandarins — albeit with waits of up to five hours for ordinary nurses and security guards compared with much quicker service for the Wellington elite.
Less encouraging is that those promised the vaccine next month are yet to hear anything from the authorities. This includes the elderly, disabled people, pregnant women, prisoners, diabetics and others with underlying health conditions.
In January, Beehive strategists insisted they were under-promising in order to over-deliver but now they no longer even hint that the general population might start receiving jabs before July.
By then, most of the developed world will already be vaccinated.
As of last week, only 0.86 per cent of the New Zealand population had been vaccinated.
That is one of the worst performances in the world, comparable with Jamaica, Equatorial Guinea, Moldova and El Salvador.
In the UK, the proportion is over 50 per cent, and in the US over 40 per cent. New Zealand is over eight times worse than the global average.
People going to work and watching cricket, rugby and yachting in stadiums and pubs is clear evidence that the Prime Minister's Covid elimination strategy succeeded, but it has come at a cost. The International Monetary Fund reports that New Zealand has run the largest discretionary fiscal response of any of the advanced or other economies it surveyed through to January, at around 20 per cent of GDP.
Stimulus was the right option and was possible because of Sir Bill English, Steven Joyce and Grant Robertson's conservative fiscal stance prior to Covid. But it still increases our vulnerability to a further economic shock, and we can hardly be surprised that such massive cash handouts have driven house-price inflation above 20 per cent — levels not seen since 2003, when Helen Clark was Prime Minister.
The risk to New Zealand is that the very success of the Covid elimination strategy, the protective power of our 2000km moat and the failure to roll out a vaccination programme with even the middle pack of other countries will leave us a remote outlier when the rest of the world returns to something like normalcy in the next three months.
Combined with having spent more than any other country last year to maintain our pre-Covid businesses, we risk emerging back into the global sunlight next year, blinking wildly and utterly unprepared for how everyone else has changed over the months they were back in business while we were stuck unvaccinated behind our border.
Behind all this is a sense that the Prime Minister isn't all that keen to abandon her status as triumphant war leader and go back to the more conventional business of governing in ordinary times.
The transtasman bubble probably did have to be put on hold again after the Brisbane outbreak, but the Prime Minister could do us a favour by not looking so happy about it.
The Australians have long believed New Zealand doesn't really want a bubble because it would require acknowledging that their pandemic management, outside of Daniel Andrews' Victoria, has been at least as good as ours.
Leading a Government at the limits of its competence on all issues except crisis PR, Ardern is in no hurry to get back to business as usual.
Nevertheless, unless she is betting on another terrorist attack, natural disaster or global pandemic in 2023, she had better get used to the idea that she must soon let go of the apparatus of the Covid state, fast-track the vaccination programme, open the border, and get to work fixing the issues of child poverty, housing and climate change which she says motivate her but on which she has so far achieved nothing.
The sooner the better — both for the New Zealand economy, and her own re-election.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant.