Covid 19 Omicron outbreak: Derek Cheng – Jacinda Ardern’s underlying message in the decision to stay in red


Yesterday’s decision on traffic light settings was a first glimpse at Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s appetite for risk with the Omicron peak in the rear-view mirror.

She could have reasonably moved Auckland to orange on the basis of falling case and
hospital numbers, and on the back of increased protection from natural immunity following Omicron sweeping through the city’s population.

It would have also sent a message that the million or so eligible Kiwis – a third of them in Auckland – who are yet to get a booster have had long enough.

She did a similar move in the Delta outbreak, when she ditched the 90 per cent double-dose bottom line because those who had bothered to get vaccinated didn’t deserve to be held up by those who’d decided not to.

Instead, she delivered the opposite message.

“We do still want to ask that of people, yes,” she said when asked about whether those who were yet to be boosted were still worth waiting for.

The unboosted were disproportionately represented in hospitals, she added.

“I worry that people hear the message that it’s a mild to moderate illness and they think they don’t need to bother. They do. Boosters make a difference.”

Why? Because they meaningfully reduce the chances of serious illness, which reduces the chances of more hospitalisations.

These have dropped considerably in recent weeks, from 600-odd (out of 2700-odd ward beds across Auckland) in mid-March to 350 yesterday.

But they are still at the high end of the modelled median outbreak scenario, which topped out at just over 300. Strain on the healthcare workforce also continued to be a factor in Auckland.

Ardern’s underlying message was that restrictions needed to stay at their peak until more people were protected.

She didn’t say how many more needed to be boosted, or what hospitalisation numbers needed to drop to.

Health boss Dr Ashley Bloomfield added that it wasn’t about a number but the trend, which is definitely going down.

Yesterday the number of recorded cases in Auckland was 1835 (with 350 in Auckland’s hospitals), down from 2300 (473 in hospitals) a week before that, 3279 (594 in hospitals) a week before that, and 4730 a week before that (605 in hospitals).

It still would have been a bold move to move Auckland to orange, given the public health advice to stay in red.

But Ardern dangled an Easter carrot – a review of traffic light settings on April 14.

By then, hospitalisation trends across the whole country might be falling. Only six DHB regions had hospitalisation numbers higher yesterday than they were a fortnight earlier – Lakes, Taranaki, Nelson Marlborough, South Canterbury, West Coast and Southern.

But the booster trend is also dropping. Yesterday there were only 866 booster doses administered, down from 1101 a week before that, 2244 the week before that, and 3199 the week before that.

Ardern will be hoping that, by the Easter D-Day, any nervousness about a potential move to orange might have moved some on the booster fence into action.

In this Covid-age of more personal responsibility, there’s only so much political capital she can spend on those who are still deciding.

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