“The one thing that will be the same for everyone is this will be the first Christmas and summer holiday in three years where we haven’t had Covid hanging over us,” Jacinda Ardern told Women’s Weekly.
Wait. What? That week there were 42,740 cases.
Of those, 581 were in hospital, 15 of those were in ICU, and there have been 31 Covid-related deaths.
As the Herald has pointed out, modelling now predicts those numbers may double in some weeks this holiday season.
Things have changed since March 2020.
Back then, a single Covid death brought out this Prime Ministerial spray: “It also brings home exactly why we are taking such strong measures to stop the spread of this virus. … Today’s death is a reminder of the fight that we have on our hands ... stay at home, break the chain and save lives…. I want to again restate; you must stay home”.
It’s true, the changes are immense. The virus itself has changed, mutating through Alpha, Beta, Delta, and many versions of Omicron along the way.
As a rule of thumb, each variant spreads faster than the last. It’s also less deadly to those it infects.
With each new variant being harder to stop, and less dangerous if it gets through, the underlying math of Covid has changed.
The tools available to fight it have changed, too. Vaccines arrived, faster and better than anyone imagined. They dramatically reduced hospitalisation and death rates, for earlier variants at least.
The thing is, those changes actually peaked before last summer. In fact, New Zealand was better prepared for Covid last summer than this one.
The vaccine loses effectiveness over time (hence the need for boosters). New variants learn to evade it, further weakening its effectiveness (so we get a newly created flu jab every season).
New Zealand hit 90 per cent vaccination in mid-November 2021.
The same month in South Africa, Omicron went from 3 per cent of Covid cases to 81 per cent of cases in two weeks. It would repeat the trick, sweeping all before it in country after country including still “closed” New Zealand by the end of January.
We would have been better off loosening all restrictions last summer, when we had peak vaccine effectiveness (yes, we knew about vaccine fade by then because other governments, who remembered to order the vaccine, were six months ahead of ours).
We could have got to the same place a year earlier, and the Prime Minister could have said something like “this will be the first Christmas and summer holiday in two years where we haven’t had Covid hanging over us”.
Instead, this time last year we were living under the “traffic light system” that stopped any gathering of more than 100 people, or 200 people depending on the ever-changing rules and colours of the traffic light.
The entire events industry was effectively shut down. Hospitality lived in limbo. There was an Australian Tennis Open but no New Zealand one, and so it went on.
Instead, the borders were closed and airlines had no idea if and when they should schedule flights to New Zealand again (it’s a sad thing, but we at the end of the line are not their top priority). Pregnant women were still being kept out of their own country, one even sheltering with the Taliban.
Then there’s something else we should remember. New Zealand’s traffic light system gave us some of the most stringent restrictions in the world for unvaccinated people. Reading the Prime Minister’s speech that introduced the traffic light system now, it stands out how much was about vaccination.
Whatever your view on vaccination and mandates for them, this summer proves last summer’s restrictions weren’t worth it. Dividing society to the point of fires and riots on the lawn of Parliament seems silly.
Now the PM is happy to have 40,000 cases a week with no vaccine rules at all. You have to wonder what it was all for.
Now, you might object it’s easy for me to say all this in hindsight. I don’t want to say we told you so, but Act did say all this when it was much more difficult to say these things.
We campaigned on December 1, 2021 being Freedom Day when restrictions should be lifted. Thirty-five thousand people signed on to that campaign.
Every other party lost its nerve at various times. For example, National campaigned vociferously to “End-MIQ”, then mysteriously abandoned the position when the weaker Omicron came along.
Act consistently argued that vaccination would reach a natural peak, the virus would keep mutating, Government couldn’t do everything, and by doing too much would do more harm than good. So yes, we did tell the Government so.
That leaves one question. Why did we spend last summer in the trenches, and this summer in the sunshine?
It’s not because we weren’t prepared last summer; in fact, the opposite is true. The simple answer is that last summer the Prime Minister’s messaging was all about fighting Covid. This summer, her spin is to play it down and live la dolce vita by the seaside.
The financial and personal costs of Covid misjudgement are staggering. The question is; why would this Government be better at handling anything else?