Welcome to the Hotel California, Auckland. You can check out any time you want but good luck with ever leaving. Sixty days into our largest city's latest lockdown, that's pretty much how it feels.
Level 4 began in winter. Now it's midway through spring. People have had birthdays, been born or died in the interim. And through it all, Aucklanders have stayed stuck at home.
If the Eagles anthem is our theme song then Groundhog Day is surely our movie. Every day we get up and repeat the previous day, including the podium of truth at 1pm. There the latest stand-in for Bill Murray utters the tired cliches one more time and coaxes a blinking Punxsutawney Ashley out of his burrow to reveal the case numbers which condemn us to another week, or month maybe, of lockdown. Who knows.
It's a bleak sort of existence. Even the columns remain the same. Six weeks ago I wrote about the need for a plan to replace the misnamed elimination strategy and give us something to strive for. We've finally ditched the elimination strategy but replaced it with … nothing.
We used to aim for zero cases for better or worse. We knew a string of zeros meant we'd be allowed some freedom back. Now no one from the Prime Minister down seems capable of articulating what we need to achieve to get out of lockdown. So we stay in limbo.
For a Government whose main and sometimes only strength is having the gift of the gab, the communication has been running rough. The hurried announcement a week ago of level 3 plus picnics and "transitioning away" from elimination pleased no one. The elimination crowd were fearful, everyone else was confused.
Even the Government's most loyal cheerleaders lamented the lack of a plan. We spent two days sniggering at the mixed messages about using the neighbour's toilet when you went for a picnic in their garden.
The Government is tying itself in knots to avoid setting a clear vaccination target. The most oft-mentioned number when ministers are pressed is 90 per cent, but then the caveats arise. It can't just be 90 per cent overall, it needs to be 90 per cent in every community, and every ethnicity. And anyway we aren't setting a target, and so it goes.
The whole thing would be laughable if it weren't so serious. Every week of lockdown means more retail, hospitality and hairdressing businesses going broke. Kids are missing a lot of school and their friends even more. We are trading their futures for the dithering now. It was a tough day in households with teenagers when the news broke that term four in Auckland would start as term three finished, at home and on a screen.
The country's debt keeps growing. The Finance Minister makes much of it being a bit better than expected, but already we have borrowed more than for the GFC and Canterbury earthquakes combined - and that's before the latest lockdown. The monetary medicine is driving a bigger wedge between the haves and have-nots as asset prices, including houses, continue to be juiced by artificially free money.
People of all ages are struggling mentally. It is said we had a mental health crisis back in 2017 – I worry to think what it is like now.
The Government's reluctance to set a meaningful vaccination target is the truly weird bit. I could understand its reticence when it hadn't arranged enough jabs, but not now.
Some people need incentives and deadlines to get jabbed and the best incentive is telling them we are opening up anyway once we hit a percentage or a date. If you did that, people would flock back to vaccination centres to get that second jab in record time, and the vaccine-reluctant (as against the tiny number of true anti-vaxxers) would get off the fence and get one, just in case. Targets are galvanising.
However, there is some good news appearing in all this gloom. Irrespective of the Government's inability to get out of its own way on targets, a clear path forward is emerging, and in the context of what we've all been going through, it is quite exciting. Ditching the elimination dead-end allows us to think about the possibilities for managing the pandemic while restoring our freedoms, and the more practical ministers are starting to do so.
Chris Hipkins' comments this week recognising the nonsense of keeping arriving travellers in hotel quarantine when Delta is already in our community is a case in point. The idea of allowing people to isolate at home after arrival is overdue and welcome. With widespread vaccination, there is no reason we couldn't do that in time for Kiwis to come home for Christmas.
Similarly, Andrew Little's plan for managing Covid cases in the community once vaccination levels are high enough was also sensible, and overdue. He's assembled a set of actual practitioners who have made the point that at 90 per cent vaccination, hardly anyone will need hospitalisation in a Covid outbreak – and importantly our hospital system can likely handle it. There is an element of butt-covering going on given the failure to lift hospital capacity over the past 18 months so the numbers do need interrogating, but the point is well made nevertheless.
The change of heart is not universal. Witness Grant Robertson scolding double-vaxxed Aucklanders yesterday for visiting each other's houses. But whatever the internal tussles going on, change is coming.
It's all possible because of the wonders that are these vaccines. They are true marvels of modern medicine and the brightest stars to have come out of this pandemic. The evidence from here and overseas is that while fully vaccinated people can still catch the virus, their symptoms are very mild and they mostly stay out of hospital and stay out of danger. That is fantastic. And it is clear now there are no significant side-effects.
The path is clear. Those that aren't yet vaccinated need to stop stuffing about and get it done. Let's take some control and set our own target for the country so we can get the borders down between Auckland and everywhere else, and see our friends and families again.
Whether it's today at the "vaxathon", tomorrow or next week, we should get to 85 or 90 per cent fully vaccinated as quickly as possible and then demand our lives back. It's in our hands. Spring is here.
- Steven Joyce is a former National MP and Minister of Finance.