Former chief science advisor to the prime minister Peter Gluckman says irrespective of whether a covid vaccine is developed or not, most of the world's travelling population won't be effectively vaccinated for at least another year and New Zealand needs a clear strategy to re-engage with the world now.
In a co-authored 'conversation paper,' Gluckman, former Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe, wrote that while the covid elimination strategy has worked, the country needs its global connectivity back soon.
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"The internet and video conferencing can take us only so far. We will need face-to-face contact if we are to maintain and grow the flow of goods and services into NZ," the paper said.
"There will be a vaccine, how effective or long-lasting is in the laps of the research gods, but realistically the bulk of the world's travelling population will not be effectively vaccinated in next 12 months," Gluckman said.
Gluckman, head of apolitical think tank Koi Tu, told BusinessDesk that while there were other economies showing how one might open up more to very low-risk entrants, NZ was "miles away from even having a strategy and system of how to do it.
"Are we just going to leave it on cold for months before we even think about developing criteria and process, and thinking about what investment is needed to do even any relaxation."
While the country's covid lockdown was a "spectacular success," messaging around the state of contact tracing, personal protective equipment and the management of isolation were not always accurate.
"People's anger at process breakdowns was to be anticipated, given the early phase of the pandemic during which most of enjoined a collective and cohesive blitz mentality, had passed."
In epidemiology terms, the paper further noted that the distinction between 'reduction to zero' of an infection and 'reduction of case transmission to a very low level' was critical in determining the path ahead.
"The latter accepts that cases will occur and that processes need to be in place to ensure community spread is not established. Given the nature of the virus, the former definition is impossible to sustain unless we are prepared to continue aggressive and foolproof testing and quarantine at the border for a long time."
The authors asked whether NZ can afford to hold itself in its state of near total-isolation. "This is not just affecting tourism and export education, but also the many ways in which NZ projects and leverages its place in the world."
The paper noted that the opening of the trans-Tasman bubble also looks further away than it did a month ago with resurgent community spread in at least one Australian state, while the hoped-for early links with Singapore have "similarly evaporated."
"Even if a highly protective vaccination is developed, it may not provide absolute protection and coverage will not be absolute, so cases will always occur."
Actuarial calculations "might allow for shorter quarantine or even self-isolation for some coming through the borders. What about mandatory tests every day or second day and a shorter quarantine for people from low-risk countries who want to enter?"
Automatic tracking system needed
The costs of failing to develop an effective automatic tracking system may come to haunt us, the paper said, as the costs of the covid-card-type tracking systems are small compared with the costs of continued lockdown.
"If we required such a tracing system for all incoming passengers and provided a large number of New Zealanders had adopted it, then we would have more alternatives, at least for low-risk entrants."
Singapore introduced a similar card this week while the Google/Apple joint development using a cellphone's embedded bluetooth technology has "progressed to overcome many of the earlier objections and is being introduced in some countries."
Whatever route is decided on, the pandemic will continue to evolve and decisions needed to be best removed from the "politically charged" environment of an election season.
"But we do need to start a process that is evidence-based, using a breadth of transparent inputs to explore the options," with a view to re-engaging with the world.