- Whanganui leaders on how the next year or two in the shadow of Covid-19 could look.
As Whanganui climbs the ladder out of lockdown restrictions to more freedoms, the shadow of Covid-19, its Delta variant and the threat of worse remains. What will life hold over the next year or two for the city? Several leading figures in Whanganui talk to Jacob McSweeny about how we can expect life to continue and change.
Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall views the changes brought about by Covid-19 lockdowns as a preface to the havoc he expects from climate change.
Upheavals to how we socialise and do business are "our direction of travel", he said.
"It's a good trial run in some ways, to get us nimble and capable of altering our lifestyles quickly because that's the reality of the future.
"Climate will alter the way we live."
Travel - and especially international travel - could become a rarity.
"[It] is a shame because I look at my kids and I'd love them to have the opportunities of travelling the world that I had when I was young, but maybe the opportunities to travel the world will be much more limited in a climate future."
After enjoying the convenience of meetings online, McDouall said travel for work had become less important as well.
McDouall was supportive of the Government's Covid-19 elimination strategy but accepted we would have to live with the virus - perhaps needing a vaccine every year.
In late August epidemiologist Professor David Skegg told Parliament's health select committee the country may eventually have to move from an elimination strategy to a suppression strategy.
"When we fail - we may fail, we've taken an ambitious strategy, but we lose nothing by doing that.
"We may find that it's not possible, we may find that we have to move to a suppression strategy, but it won't be something we do in advance - it will just happen."
Skegg said life under a suppression strategy would be more difficult than life under elimination.
"Unfortunately, it will not be good because we will all have to live a more restrictive life, people will have to shield from each other particularly in winter," he said.
Skegg said opening borders would mean more outbreaks of Covid-19.
"Let me be completely frank - when we reopen the border, things are going to get tough."
He said once the borders open there would be regular outbreaks of Covid-19 that would be difficult to control.
"We are going to be at war with this virus for years," Skegg said.
Whanganui lawyer Rob Moore is full of doubts about the next few years.
"I can't see what the road map out is from this," he said.
At some point with maybe 80 per cent of the country vaccinated, New Zealand will probably have to give up the elimination strategy and consider opening its borders, he said.
For Moore it was a frightening prospect - his three-year-old son has a weakened immune system.
"That's going to be really scary for a lot of people. My son ... I don't want him to get Covid at all.
"But there isn't really any other option is there?"
Once everyone has had an opportunity to get vaccinated, Moore said the Government would find it hard to continue to put restrictions in place.
"How are they going to lock down businesses? I don't know."
Moore believes more certainty by the Government is needed, pointing to New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian's signalling of 70 per cent double dose vaccination as a period where life would be close to normal over there.
He did not agree with that figure but said it was important for businesses to have a target like that they could make plans around.
Te Rūnanga o Ngā Wairiki Ngāti Apa chairman Pahia Turia agreed there would have to come a point where government would open the borders.
That needed to be informed by good research, he said.
"I don't think I can lock ourselves away forever. We're going to have to learn to live with the reality we've got with Covid."
He said New Zealand's response to Covid-19 had been one of the best in the world to date, but in the coming year or so it would have to shift from purely an elimination strategy.
"Eliminating this from the globe is not going to happen.
"What does it mean to co-exist with Covid and how do we do that in a way we can manage that?"
Māori had accepted they had to adapt customs to work with various Covid-19 restrictions, Turia said, such as having fewer people at tangihanga.
"We've got a tangi on right now. It does pose challenges."
He said people were a lot more aware and compliant in regard to the restrictions than the previous lockdown.
Turia said there would be "pressure points" trying to get everyone vaccinated.
"We are going to have those people that don't want to be vaccinated.
"We're already hearing corporates saying people can't use their services if they're not vaccinated."
He said it was a personal choice and people wanted to be informed about the decisions they make around getting vaccinated and the overall wellbeing of their family.
"The challenge we have is to make sure people are in the best position to make a decision about this."
Education would be key, he said, but, "you do wonder, what else is required to get those others vaccinated."
Te Oranganui chief executive Wheturangi Walsh-Tapiata said she had sensed a bit of lockdown fatigue going on in the recent time spent at level 4.
"We need to be re-energised," she said.
"Being in lockdown in some ways can be quite exhausting."
Keeping up with work at home was hard enough, but many of her staff had to balance family demands at the same time.
As a workforce they tried following maramataka - the Māori calendar.
"Being guided by our moon as opposed to a Gregorian calendar," she said.
"Recently one of the statements made at our karakia was that it was a good day for planting so a number of our staff chose that time to create a bit of health and wellbeing time to dig up the garden or to plant a few plants."
Te Oranganui staff also had a competition around face masks to encourage mask wearing and have a bit of fun, she said.
Walsh-Tapiata said there were more lockdowns to come.
"And of course my biggest fear is, while it's happening in Auckland at the moment in terms of the continued level 4, what would it be like if it came to our community?"
When there was an outbreak of Covid-19 in the country, Walsh-Tapiata said she did see an increase in people deciding they were ready to get vaccinated or tested for Covid-19.
The challenge for Te Oranganui now was to get the messaging right around vaccination for different age groups of Māori.
"We're trying to find a whole variety of different ways in which we get that messaging out to our younger generation.
"The use of social media, the use of videos, I see some TikTok type things occurring."
Information had to be good, clear and reliable, Walsh-Tapiata said.
Walsh-Tapiata said she was concerned about the disruption Covid-19 restrictions had on tangihanga and what that meant for people who were grieving.
Organisations like Te Oranganui needed to do more thinking around how it could support those people dealing with the loss of a loved on, she said.
The Bartley Group includes 12 businesses around Whanganui and its managing director Brendon Bartley said there was a lot less stress and anxiety at the time of the August lockdown compared to March 2020.
He said Whanganui businesses were thriving before the lockdown and they would likely bounce back quickly.
"Whanganui is very good at supporting local businesses compared to other regions. That helps a lot."
Some of the Bartley group businesses were at "a complete standstill" at level 4, whereas at level 3 the companies were operating at about 70 per cent, Bartley said.
That meant the companies had to be careful to ensure cashflow was healthy.
"Each manager in the group in the group is just looking at costs that are needed and monitoring them very closely over that time period, really," Bartley said.
Vaccinations among workers was a difficult topic - they had conversations about the vaccine but staff won't be forced to get it.
"It's a little bit too early to be making calls of making it compulsory to staff just yet. It may come in the future.
"If we're hiring new staff we probably would go towards that angle of having people vaccinated if that's the consensus that it's the right move."
He said that while he wanted to do what it took to keep his staff safe, people had rights as to whether they wanted to take the vaccine or not.
There were some businesses where staff will need to be vaccinated because of the places they have to visit in doing their job, Bartley added.
Another ongoing repercussion of Covid-19 was that Bartley expected increasing freight costs to continue to bite in the next 12 months.
"It's starting to hit a bit more now for businesses.
"Shipping lines aren't calling into New Zealand as frequent as they used to. The cost of bringing in imported containers and export containers is going up."
Those costs will also get passed on to consumers, Bartley said.
The Bartley company Safemode in particular was having trouble bringing in computer hardware and microchips.
It used to use two companies that it could reliably import from.
"They're now having five or six suppliers they're going to because of shortages.
"Certain product lines we've got to hold more stock of on imported product."
The Whanganui Chamber of Commerce chief executive Sue Stuart said while businesses adapted well to quick lockdowns, future shutdowns could be a death knell for some.
"Consistent lockdowns will not allow some of our small businesses to survive should this continue."
She said vaccination was paramount for opening up and keeping future disruptions to a minimum.
For the long term businesses needed to focus on strategic and ways they could continue operating safely under Covid-19 restrictions.
The Chamber has joined with others around the country to push a petition for the Government's Covid-19 Resurgence Support Payment to be weekly top-ups, rather than a one-off.
That petition has support from more than 40,000 businesses.
Down the road at Whanganui & Partners, chief executive Hannah Middleton said events were vulnerable at the moment and needed local support.
"With uncertainty around events, we encourage locals to be supportive and enjoy the amazing offerings available in Whanganui."
Middleton said more businesses were able to operate at alert level 4 this year compared to last year, showing some had worked out how to adapt to the change.
There was also an increase in the number of businesses able to operate at alert level 3.
Like Stuart, Middleton wanted increased vaccination and a move away from lockdowns.
"We know there's a balance being sought at present and we recognise the difficulty in maintaining business activity while also avoiding the level of interaction that could lead to the Delta variant's spread and extended restrictive conditions."