We are just a couple of months away from potentially being a model of how to reopen borders safely, except for one thing. By Jane Clifton.
As Covid-19 mutates, so does public policy – though often rather grudgingly.
The latest variant, produced after painful weeks of denial from the official podium, is that New Zealand is eliminating its elimination strategy.The Government has finally accepted that we will have to live with coronavirus, just like every other country.
The Prime Minister would rather have undergone unanaesthetised root canal surgery than made this concession. It's still possible that someone secretly put something in her almond milk, and she'll wake up tomorrow and resurrect elimination. The strategy was globally regarded as a shining beacon until quite recently, and seems to have become a talisman of leadership for her.
Increasingly this year, however, a more up-to-date scientific consensus has driven a new political momentum behind the reality that this virus is ineradicable.
Thanks to the wildly gregarious Delta variant, it has grown nimbler. Its sibling, the Mu variant, is about to join its world tour, and others are expected.
Even the fully vaccinated can still catch and transmit it. The only thing we can realistically now eliminate is Covid's severity. The fully vaccinated are exponentially less likely to die or suffer severe illness, and that, rather than elimination, is the foundation on which restoration of freedom depends.
With New Zealand finally on track to achieve 80 per cent-plus vaccination by year's end, epidemiologists' predictions of no return to normality until 2023 now seem unduly pessimistic. No one's happy co-existing with a potentially deadly flu, but, as with flies, rats, pyramid sellers and other unlovely pests we can't get shot of, the virus is now containable to within bearable limits.
Jacinda Ardern's concession was a long time coming. Daily Covid-19 briefings were beginning to resemble a cross between peek-a-boo and bear-baiting. Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins and Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield were using increasingly elliptical and billowing phraseology to hint that elimination was history, whereas Ardern sternly insisted the policy was unchanged.
Her intransigence was stoutly bolstered by polling showing most people have reservations about opening borders too soon.
But Ardern's chief concern was the risk of departing from a conceptual goal that had worked globally envied wonders for more than 18 months. Any perception of a newly relaxed stance against Covid, or, heaven forfend, a tolerance of it, might cause all that hard-won public compliance and self-restraint to collapse.
Hit the beach
Some of Ardern's advisers feared that with warmer weather on the way – and remember, we've never had a summer lockdown – the temptation to say "Covid, schmovid" and hit the beach mob-handed, as we've repeatedly seen Australians do, might overwhelm us.
Such reservations underestimate New Zealanders. Patience is certainly being tested by this latest lockdown. But anti-lockdown sentiment here remains gratifyingly muted. Australia's mass Covid-defiers were prepared last week to re-enact The Wreck of the Hesperus, nearly drowning in their efforts to show they would not be Covid-cowed. Our anti-Covid protesters couldn't get a quorum to hold a Tupperware party.
New Zealanders mostly view pandemic rule-breaking as akin to being a black-market spiv during rationing or breaching the blackout during the Blitz. It was uncanny good luck that Ardern's eradication concession came at the same time as two mass crucifixions over perceived rule breaking.
The furore over the infiltration of Wānaka by an Auckland couple and the forensic social-media dissection of microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles' beach trip will make any tempted rule-bender think twice. The Aucklanders apologised and will take their lumps. Wiles turned out to have done nothing wrong. But Twitter had their heads on pikes for days. Social media has become a grotesquely Taliban-esque monster, but it has its uses. Who would now dare to step a jandal out of line and risk such Old Testament wrath?
No less dissuasive to a collapse of discipline is the raised level of enforcement. Police are prosecuting flouters; judges have even remanded people in custody. Fines, jail time and employment penalties are severe consequences. People can now see that although our tolerance for Covid has changed, our seriousness about the safety rules has ramped up several notches. Like rule-flouting, vaccine refusal is coming to be seen as more than just a social faux pas, but an act of civic hostility.
New Zealand is a couple of months away from potentially being a model of how to reopen borders safely – but with a fly in the ointment. Officials, experts and businesses are still bickering about whose saliva test is best. After 18 months of foot-dragging, misinformation and intemperate warnings against spit testing, officials now refuse to disclose critical facts about the tests they have – finally – chosen. This country could, and should, have been using these rapid-turnaround tests since last year, rather than relying so heavily on unpleasant and sometimes injurious nasal swabs. Someone's as-yet-unexplained intransigence has deprived the public of a system that could have spared individuals from illness and isolation and moved the country towards freedom much earlier.
Also unhelpful is the tacit declaration of the Great Reopening World Cup. Surviving a pandemic shouldn't become a competition, but other countries are suddenly jostling one another in the birdcage on a wave of global political machismo.
Australia is rattling dags to open up, despite now being behind us in the vaccine race and with much more serious community contagion. The UK has returned itself to its old normal, having abandoned even the insurance of vaccine passes for certain gatherings – and despite infections and deaths remaining at troubling numbers. Denmark has lifted all restrictions. French President Emmanuel Macron's perfectly reasonable edict that the vaccinated would be free, but the unvaccinated would still face restrictions, has met with a giant Gallic raspberry.
The world is reaching not just the end of its ability to stamp out coronavirus, but also the end of its political ability to restrict citizens' freedom.
Getting less fanfare is the fact that most of these countries are leaving their Covid caves open, refining emergency rules for next time a deadly novel virus comes calling.
As Ardern concedes, vaccines trump lockdown. But any new virus mutation could reset the policy dial yet again.
One consolation is that, by then, our poor nostrils will be spared. Scientists will hopefully have refined the new, instant viral breath-testing technology, utterly bypassing the nasal vs spit-test squabble.