Derek Cheng: Nationals reopening plan includes a massive dose of wishful thinking


Judith Collins and Chris Bishop chortled with laughter at the Government thinking it would take at least 18 months to build a new MIQ facility.

A well-ventilated facility that would keep cohorts of travellers separate perfectly captures National’s reopening plan: a lot of good ideas as well as a lot of wishful thinking.

Collins reckons a 1000- to 1500-room facility can progressively open at the start of next year, a claim that would surely invite similar chortling from Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.

Hipkins has said, even with fast-track consenting, “by the time you build it, you’d still be 18 months down the track at a minimum”.

Bishop: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Use the Public Works Act. Fast-track consents. Just get on with it.”

Collins: “I’ve been in a factory in Christchurch that makes basically flat pack houses. They can be put up in a day and a half – three bedroom houses.”

There are actually a lot of similarities with National’s and the Government’s reopening plans. One notable exception is National’s vaccination target.

With 70 to 75 per cent of the eligible population vaccinated, National thinks nationwide lockdowns won’t be needed. At 85 per cent, localised lockdowns won’t be needed, and the borders can reopen – which would happen by Christmas.

The rhetoric about lockdowns is almost meaningless because, like the Government, National remains flexible about using them if a particular scenario required it.

The rhetoric about Christmas is aimed at fully vaccinated Kiwis abroad who are rightfully infuriated with the MIQ voucher system.

This is a politically-loaded carrot because National’s reopening isn’t pinned to any timeline, but on 85 per cent of the eligible population being vaccinated.

Asked what would happen if that wasn’t reached by Christmas, Bishop essentially said it would be reached if National was in charge.

(Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has also refused to answer whether her reopening plan might be held up by the unvaccinated.)

Bishop also expects only a “low” number of Covid cases when the borders open up in a risk-based way, even though 85 per cent translates to about 1.5 million unvaccinated Kiwis, including 760,000-odd children up to age 11.

Te Pūnaha Matatini modelling for that proportion of unvaccinated people showed 962,362 cases and 4314 deaths, assuming moderate public health measures are used.

Bishop said those numbers would be minimal because of the party’s 10-step plan, which includes several ways to boost testing, contact-tracing and health system capacity.

Models are best guesses based on a number of assumptions, but the huge gulf between a “low” number and almost a million cases represents a massive dose of wishful thinking.

Then there’s ICU capacity.

Deputy leader Shane Reti highlighted how ICU wards have struggled to cope with the number of cases in this outbreak.

So how would National build ICU capacity by Christmas to deal with endemic Covid-19?

Collins: “I’ve been in senior ministerial roles before. I know exactly what can happen. If you really need to, you can make it happen … We can always bring in those nurses and doctors who are so desperate to get into New Zealand to work here.”

National has certainly highlighted issues that the Government has failed to deliver on.

The number of ICU ventilators has increased but the number of specialist staff hasn’t, effectively meaning that nationwide capacity has barely moved since the pandemic began.

The MIQ voucher system continues to be a disaster, and it remains unclear when fully vaccinated Kiwis will be able to bypass MIQ; the Government’s phased reopening is pencilled in for some time within the first three months of next year.

That wriggle room is understandable, given how much uncertainty there is around when the rollout will be complete, whether any new variants might arise, and the ongoing effectiveness of vaccines.

There is also a clear impression of the Ministry of Health – and the Government – dragging its feet on saliva and rapid antigen testing, boosting contact tracing capacity, approving monoclonal antibody treatment, and vaccinating frontline workers.

Which is really the guts of National’s argument.

It’s a luxury of being in Opposition to claim that they would simply do things better than this lot.

It’s also a curse if they’ve done little to make voters believe that they are, indeed, likely to deliver better than this lot has so far.

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