Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Matthew Hooton: The remorseless logic driving Jacinda Arderns decisions


You might believe the fiction that politicians are in charge but — to cite the Harold MacMillan cliché — the greatest influence on policy is events.

On that basis, ignore the details of what the Government says on any given day and plan for the new normal to arrive in weeks rather than months. You should be able to safely book your summer holiday, whether camping in Northland or skiing in St Moritz.

And while the weeks ahead will be tough — especially if you work at Middlemore Hospital — retailers can look forward to an excellent Christmas shopping season, and all other businesspeople to a 2022 undisturbed by lockdowns or other material restrictions.

Since Jacinda Ardern abandoned elimination on October 4 by announcing Auckland’s move to level 3 the next day, a remorseless logic has been driving her decisions.

To her credit, Ardern is boldly going with the flow: abandoning her levels and steps in favour of the new traffic lights; introducing domestic vaccine passports; expanding compulsory vaccination to at least 40 per cent and perhaps the whole workforce; expanding the types of vaccines New Zealand recognises; planning to open all schools in two weeks; fast-tracking the approval and purchase of Pfizer’s paediatric and booster vaccines plus Merck’s new antiviral pill; moving yesterday towards abolishing managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ); and on track to abandon her own vaccination targets and internal borders by Christmas if that doesn’t happen automatically under current policy.

The Prime Minister has no real choice. The conceit that we alone would beat Delta was just another manifestation of our naive national myth of Kiwi exceptionalism. Our Covid journey will ultimately follow roughly the same path as everywhere else.

Ardern was right to pursue elimination for as long as she did. It delivered fewer hospital admissions and deaths, and some near-normal times between the two big lockdowns while we waited for the vaccine.

But when the new normal arrives, a million or so of us will get Covid each year, and everyone before too long. The only choice is whether you are vaccinated or unvaccinated, which in turn strongly influences whether you spend a few days in bed or less, or end up in hospital or worse.

Whether she admits it or not, Ardern’s failure to order vaccines in line with the rest of the developed world, and her decision to move to level 3 before near-universal vaccination, ensured hospital wards and MIQ facilities would be overwhelmed.

So it has transpired, with over 300 people with Covid already unable to be accommodated and living at home, hopefully with some medical care or at least a pulse oximeter. Soon it will be many more.

The forced shift to home-based care in turn made yesterday’s MIQ decision unavoidable. It was impossible to justify sending home hundreds of non-vaccinated sick people, while forcing double-vaccinated Kiwis who had Covid months ago and are now testing negative into two weeks in MIQ.

Covid Minister Chris Hipkins said yesterday he plans for double-vaccinated healthy Kiwis to be allowed to avoid MIQ altogether in the first quarter of 2022, but political pressure will bring that forward to before Christmas. There will be no MIQ for double-vaxxed healthy Kiwis returning home from holidays abroad this January.

Expect the double-jabbed, negative-test rule to be extended to tourists and overseas students well ahead of the current timeline. Already, the Ministry of Education says the Government will allow 1000 foreign students into New Zealand next year, 400 of them pilot trainees as well as 300 university and 300 polytechnic students. Who knew that private flight schools had better lobbyists than the state tertiary institutions? Expect universities, polytechnics and secondary schools to redouble their advocacy in the next few weeks.

Led by the University of Auckland, all tertiary institutions will soon require all staff and students to be double-jabbed to step on campus. Even as the Government radically expands compulsory vaccination in the workforce, it will soon not be possible for young people to get any job requiring so much as a polytechnic certificate without first being double-jabbed.

Beehive strategists say the intention is that the legislation to be passed next month allowing employers to make vaccination a condition of employment will be written permissively so that, in practice, it covers almost everyone.

As Education Minister, Hipkins has already allowed senior secondary students back to school, and announced a target of November 15 for primary and intermediate schools.

Presumably year 9 and 10 students will be also be allowed back. While teachers are not legally required to be vaccinated by November 15, they can be given notice if they aren’t in time for term 1.

For their younger students, MedSafe will formally decide when children under 12 can be vaccinated. But it is not unknown for senior Beehive staffers to explain to independent decision-makers what prime ministers think, just as a courtesy you understand.

With the politicians and bureaucrats having learned their lesson from their original failure to order vaccines, expect children aged 5 to 11 to start being jabbed in a few weeks.

Meanwhile, vaccination rates, including among Māori, continue to rise, especially now Wellington bureaucrats and District Health Boards (DHBs) are out of the way of local providers. Auckland is on track to meet the 90 per cent target around December 1, the date Ardern’s opponents have nominated for Freedom Day. Expect her to adopt a Freedom Day by another name, whatever vaccination rates are in late November. The shops, bars and restaurants will re-open for the December peak.

Ardern also knows internal borders are unsustainable for much longer, and certainly unthinkable by mid-December. Even if vaccination rates in the Northland DHB haven’t reached 90 per cent by Christmas, Ardern knows she cannot create economic misery in the poorest part of the country by preventing its tourism sector from operating through the summer. The same applies to Coromandel, the Bay of Plenty, Taupō and other regions highly reliant on tourism.

In any case, Aucklanders won’t stand for not having a summer holiday after nearly four months of lockdown. The border between Auckland and Northland, including by sea, would become impossible to police.

Yes, Ardern’s decisions mean the hospitals will be stretched and there will be Covid deaths, almost exclusively among the unvaxxed. But the path is now basically set. And much better we embrace the new normal before summer than delaying the inevitable transition until autumn or the winter.

– Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based public relations consultant.

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