Covid 19 coronavirus Delta outbreak: Thomas Coughlan – It’s no longer clear Jacinda Ardern’s strategy is the right one


We woke on Wednesday in a state of national deja vu.

Collectively slipping into our second-best athleisure (the first-best being kept for Government-mandated exercise), scanning the airways for news of new cases, and settling in for a day of work at our kitchen tables, it was easy to feel that this time things will play out much the same as they did last year, politically as well as epidemiologically.

But there’s obvious upside and downside risk to this scenario.

Epidemiologically, the Delta variant is so highly infectious it could spread beyond the ability of the Government to control it.

The success of the first lockdown was aided by a helpful feedback loop.

The Government made the right decision, which yielded relatively quick results, whetting people’s appetites for compliance with further Covid rules.

A survey by DPMC conducted in May found that 75 per cent of New Zealanders felt the country was heading in the right direction, and the vast majority of the country was happy following the rules.

This was in no small part because the rules were thought to be efficacious – nearly half (48 per cent) of people followed the rules because they want to avoid another lockdown, followed by a desire to protect their own health and the health of others.

That could change if, as we see in Sydney, Delta has meant the lockdown making very little difference to growth in the number of daily cases.

Should hard lockdowns no longer be an effective measure against Covid, it could put people off lockdowns completely.

The other change to last time is that New Zealand is no longer clearly running a world-leading Covid-19 response.

This is mainly because the complexity around vaccinations means it’s no longer clear what a world-leading Covid response looks like.

While we continue to have low deaths and infections, we have a woefully low rate of vaccination, which currently languishes among Romania, Albania, and Bolivia. If other parts of our public infrastructure were ranked so poorly, you’d expect ministerial resignations.

The only vaccine metric the Government appears to be succeeding on is its own unambitious vaccine targets.

Like an epidemiological equivalent of NCEA’s justly derided unit standards, the Government’s targets appear to be of little use for anything but boosting the self-esteem of those they profess to assess.

The idea that most DHBs could be “hitting” their targets, while the population eligable for the vaccines is still roughly 60 per cent unvaccinated shows the targets for the sham they are – the emperor has no vaccine.

The Government has some serious questions to answer to the people put at risk by the latest Covid outbreak, which appears to include a large number of under-30s.

In comparator countries overseas, under-30s have been offered a jab – in England, half of adults under 30 had received at least one dose of vaccine by the beginning of July.

If the latest outbreak grows and puts lives at risk, the Government will need to justify why it took so long to ramp up its vaccination rollout. With other countries streaks ahead, those questions will be entirely justified.

Vaccines are beginning to become top of mind for New Zealanders. That same DPMC survey found that 43 per cent of people were starting to think more seriously about the vaccination plan – double the number of people who were thinking about it in the previous survey, conducted in March.

There will also be questions about vaccination from the more libertarian end of the political spectrum.

Last year, the libertarian right didn’t really have much to say for itself besides letting the private sector into the Covid response. The Government’s line was bolstered by what’s known as the politics of TINA – “There Is No Alternative”. It’s a fairly useful justification for doing whatever it is that you’re doing, simply because no one has any way of doing anything better.

The politics of Covid in 2020 was a politics of competence – there was only really one way of doing things and political debate centred around how well governments were able to implement the only strategy that then existed.

With vaccines this is no longer the case – there is an alternative. It involves vastly more infection, slightly more death, and a whole lot more risk.

Kiwis, should they choose to spend their lockdown scrolling through their Facebook or Instagram feeds, will notice Americans and Europeans enjoying summer vacations at the beach, international travel, and live theatre. They’re living the new normal – they’re living the alternative.

No one’s kidding themselves about a return to what things were like before, but for our Northern Hemisphere friends, two doses of vaccine and a bit of mask-wearing seems to buy an alternative lifestyle that has significant benefits to our own.

This somewhat upends the politics of Covid in New Zealand. Should this outbreak worsen, and modelling suggests it might, it will no longer be clear that our approach is the right one.

There’s no easy answer for our politicians. If parties reconcile themselves with the fact a change of approach is needed, it’s no sure bet they’ll easily settle on what the next strategy should be.

But it would change the political dynamic of the last year, where most of our political parties has parroted, to a greater or lesser extent, the line coming out of the Ministry of Health.

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