Only last week Jacinda Ardern released her plan to "reconnect New Zealanders to the world". It was a plan to maintain the country's winning trifecta of protecting public health, social cohesion, and the economy from Covid-19; a plan to safeguard Kiwis while reopening the borders to a world awash with the deadly, and highly transmissible, Delta variant. Unfortunately, Delta has come early.
However, the latest outbreak should not alter the planned reopening of the borders. It shows that the Delta variant is unavoidable. And that vaccination offers the only long-term path out of this pandemic — the vaccination of both visitors to New Zealand and, more importantly, Kiwis at home.
The plan to restrict entry to people who have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and who come from "low-risk" countries, will significantly reduce the number of infected visitors. But it will not eliminate them. The Strategic Covid-19 Public Health Advisory Group (SCPHAG) states that "even with the most rigorous precautions, it would be inevitable that people carrying the virus would enter New Zealand on a regular basis". The current outbreak reinforces that.
The SCPHAG insists the process of reopening cannot begin "until the vaccination programme has been fully rolled out". The greater the number of Kiwis who are vaccinated when the borders reopen, the lower the risk of serious domestic damage from the inevitable outbreaks. Hence the Prime Minister's statements last Thursday that reopening will only commence "once enough people are vaccinated"; "once we have good coverage".
The great uncertainty is what Ardern means by "enough people" and "good coverage". Professor Sir David Skegg says "we should be aiming to get as near as possible to 100 per cent of eligible people vaccinated".
The Doherty Institute has prepared a report for the Australian government that models the impact of Covid-19 at different levels of vaccination in the population. One of the key messages is that even when 80 per cent vaccination is achieved, there could still be considerable loss of life from Covid-19 flare-ups.
New Zealand's success in handling the pandemic to date has conditioned its citizens to view any Covid-19 deaths as unacceptable. At the same time, Kiwis have come to expect few lockdowns and other inconveniences. Meeting these high standards post-reopening requires a very high vaccination rate, certainly something above 80 per cent. Is that realistic by the first quarter of 2022 or indeed ever?
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Historically, NZ has a poor track record on vaccinations. According to Professor Nikki Turner, a member of the SCPHAG, "immunisation rates in New Zealand are low by comparable international standards and have been decreasing since 2016". Latest polls from the Ministry of Health and Massey University on the intention of Kiwis to get the Covid-19 jab suggest a likely take up rate of about 80 per cent. This is similar to polling in Australia. "Vaccine hesitancy" is a downside of New Zealand's Covid-19 success so far. People who have little lived experience of the virus' dangers are much more complacent about vaccination.
To date, Ardern has not said enough about how she will address this problem. It must be a priority for the next five months. She will need more than just exhortations to protect the 'team of five million'. Ironically, the current Delta outbreak will help her case. Fear is a wonderful motivator. Just ask Sydney.
Last week, the Prime Minister hinted at a more realistic mechanism for achieving an early 2022 reopening when she said New Zealand is "on track for everyone who wants a vaccine to be offered one by the end of the year". The SCPHAG was more explicit — "Once vaccination has been offered to all of the eligible population, we assume that border restrictions will start to be relaxed". If that's not the real plan, it should be. Offer everyone the opportunity to get vaccinated by the end of 2021 then reopen in January 2022 via the 'low-risk travel pathway' under a measured elimination strategy.
Those unwilling to get vaccinated can't hold the country hostage indefinitely. Closed borders have many casualties — the Kiwis at home and abroad cut off from loved ones, the people involved in the tourism and education sectors, and the businesses that desperately need skilled workers from offshore. Whether directly or indirectly, the entire economy suffers from isolation.
Covid-19 is here for the long term. Ardern is right. It's time for New Zealanders to reconnect with the world, slowly and carefully.
• Ross Stitt is a NZ-born freelance writer currently living in Sydney.