At long last we are getting somewhere, I think. The Government has begun to treat the virus as we treat every other infectious disease – with vaccination and medical services, not by suspending life much longer.
I say that tentatively, because the messages from the Beehive podium can change from one week to the next. It was only last week, when we were hearing about "traffic lights" for a vaccinated population, that the Prime Minister said previously announced "steps" out of level 3 would depend on case numbers.
She was answering a reporter's question and must have given it more thought over last weekend, because on Monday, with the Delta outbreak setting new records for daily case numbers, she announced Waikato could go to step 2 on Wednesday and Auckland "in principle" next Wednesday.
Thank goodness for small mercies. Those centres of social life, shopping malls and suburban main streets, will be alive again in a few days. Summer sports may be seen in the parks. But the best news from the Beehive on Monday was the sight of the Prime Minister and the director general of Health putting up charts of the numbers in hospital during this outbreak.
The lines on the screen showed hospitalisations rising much more gently, and at a much lower level than cases of infection that have been rising steadily since Auckland was released from Level 4 in September.
The divergence would not surprise anybody who has been watching the figures worldwide in this pandemic from the beginning. The virus started out with a mortality rate rising much more slowly than infections and the gulf widened as infections spread exponentially. But this was the first time I'd heard Jacinda Ardern call our attention to hospitalisation rates rather than case numbers.
Dr Ashley Bloomfield gave us the good news that the hospitalisation rate was projected to remain within the capacity of New Zealand's hospitals, including their intensive care units, thanks to our now high level of vaccination.
Furthermore, he said, for many of those admitted to hospital with Covid-19 the disease was not their primary diagnosis. In plain language, there were worse things wrong with them. I think that is something we ought to have been told long ago. I was surprised the revelation did not interest the press conference.
In fact the thrust of nearly all the questions while I watched was on the fearful side of the decision to lower Auckland's restrictions while the virus was spreading. Only Newstalk ZB's Barry Soper, bless him, asked why the city had to wait a week longer than Waikato for relief.
Ardern knew her response was lame - something about schools preparing to open and business needing time to get ready. Schools may be taking two weeks to get organised, businesses would do it in a day.
The real reason for the delay, it was later reported, was that while the Government realises it has kept Auckland shut for as long it dares, epidemiological advice would have it keep the city shut until case numbers come down. The decision "in principle" to open nine days later was a compromise.
But let's not quibble. It means "in principle" the Government is no longer making decisions based purely on case numbers. Modeller Shaun Hendy was disappointed to observe that, "instead of allowing vaccination to really start bending the curve (of infections), we're basically using it to relax restrictions."
That is exactly what is happening, there comes a point when people in a shutdown city start to shut down mentally, losing their energy to recover. Some of those with their business closed for too long might have lost the will to re-open. We will see on Wednesday.
The Prime Minister does not need to come to Auckland to know this, and should not come. The Cabinet has plenty of ministers stuck here to keep her abreast of the city's condition. Big calls in the pandemic response need a PM to be in Wellington every day, especially in this confusing "transition" from elimination to vaccination.
The decision on Tuesday to put the Far North into a Level 3 lockdown in response to just two cases of unknown origin, demonstrated that elimination is still the strategy for regions outside Auckland until vaccination rates are higher. It also proved, as did two cases in Christchurch recently, that nothing boosts vaccine uptakes better than a viral outbreak.
In time the virus will reach all parts of New Zealand, just as it has reached all parts of Auckland. When that happens we should get to 90 per cent vaccination everywhere and be allowed to move around subject to traffic lights triggered by pressure on hospitals.
Already it looks like the hospitals will cope.