No doubt everything will be all right in the end, but it seems we're doomed in early 2021 to re-watch the same political pantomime we endured in early 2020.
The plot goes like this. Prompted by frustrated public health experts, the Opposition spends the early part of the year demanding radical action to protect New Zealand from a strange new virus. The Government, still mentally on holiday, dithers.
Eventually, the Government begins adopting the Opposition's proposals. But only when the virus turns up in the community does it finally act authoritatively to protect public health and thus the economy.
The Prime Minister's communication skills don't just ensure that her draconian new rules are accepted and are thereby effective, but that she wins politically.
Even better for her, the Opposition then pivots to demand the very measures it advocated should be relaxed, including border controls. Instead of winning points for early leadership, it comes across as nit-picky and irresponsible.
Back to the present, it is easy to be so distracted by the beauty of the New York Yacht Club and the UK's Royal Yacht Squadron racing on the Waitematā Harbour to forget that New Zealand, the South Pacific and even Australia are basically idyllic Covid-free islands in a world where Covid rages worse than ever before.
But past performance is no guarantee of future results and we are at serious risk of complacency.
Even more instructive than the ongoing shambles in the US and UK is Ireland. Having had one of the lowest levels of Covid-19 cases in Europe as recently as December, it now has the world's highest infection rate.
We should not be so smug as to think something similar couldn't happen here.
Optimistic talk by the likes of Rob Fyfe and Auckland International Airport's Adrian Littlewood that new local technologies might allow our border to soon reopen should be discounted.
Local epidemiologists and vaccinologists are alarmed by the more infectious new British strain of Covid-19, and even more by the new South African strain that may be sufficiently different to require modifications to the vaccines being rolled out. What's more, the virus will continue to mutate.
I was among those sceptical about both the desirability and achievability of the elimination strategy Jacinda Ardern eventually adopted, but it has worked. Having come so far at such little relative economic cost, her Government needs to hurry up and protect the gains.
There are signs it is again moving in the right direction.
After strongly denouncing National's demands since August to implement compulsory pre-flight testing, the Government is tonight implementing that rule for arrivals from the UK and US, and has given itself the power to impose it on arrivals from every country.
We should perhaps be grateful the Government at least hesitated given the enormity of this step. The right of New Zealand citizens to return home, including to access the public health system when sick, is so fundamental it must never be violated unless absolutely necessary. Make no mistake that, however justified, compulsory pre-flight testing is a massive abrogation of a fundamental right.
Other bold measures now need to be considered. As well as pre-flight testing, professors Nick Wilson and Michael Baker suggest going so far as requiring five-day pre-travel quarantine prior to boarding a flight. They say rapid antigen tests should be introduced as well as the slower but more accurate polymerase chain reaction tests being used now.
The Government should move quarantine centres from Auckland to lower population centres, say Wilson and Baker, or at least use Auckland only for lower-risk travellers, such as those from Australia. Within quarantine facilities, they say shared spaces such as exercise areas should be restricted, at least until inmates test negative. Across the system, they want rule-breakers prosecuted, not just bollocked and warned.
For those who represent the greatest risk of transferring Covid into the community, the professors say the Government should immediately obtain sufficient doses of vaccine to protect border control workers, rather than sticking with the current timeline of March.
On this side of the border, Wilson and Baker want improvements to the Covid tracer app, including the use of Bluetooth technology. They are far from alone.
Even the libertarian-leaning Act Party says using the app should be made compulsory. We all notice that some businesses make it socially unacceptable to enter their premises without first scanning while others make it difficult to even find the QR code. It wouldn't do Ardern any harm politically to thank Act for its idea and adopt it.
The next step is the vaccination programme. Bluntly, New Zealand is not an urgent priority and local vaccination is not a silver bullet for opening the border anyway. Israel, the United Arab Emirates and New Zealand's own experience playing catch-up with influenza in 2019 show how quickly it should be possible to vaccinate an entire population with sufficient political will and public acceptance. The US and France show how badly vaccination programmes can fail absent those factors.
No doubt there will be plenty of stuff-ups as the programme is rolled out which the Opposition and media must highlight to keep the pressure on, but it will ultimately not matter if the vaccination programme takes all of 2021 as long as it proceeds in line with the rest of the world.
Simply put, the opening of the border does not depend on anything that happens in New Zealand but on the virus being brought under control globally. Like every other multilateral issue from climate change to free trade, that has little to do with what happens in Wellington and everything to do with decisions and operational competence in the likes of Washington, Beijing, Brussels, Brasilia and New Delhi. On the border, we are ultimately a policy taker, not a policy maker.
Sometime during 2021, it may be possible to do that business trip, visit the in-laws or take a holiday in Australia or the South Pacific, but don't count on going further afield until 2022 at the earliest. And don't bet the business on any tourists or foreign students arriving from Southeast Asia, China or beyond until 2023.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant.