The Prime Minister and senior Ministers only on Friday warned top Auckland business leaders the fight against Covid was far from over.
They were dramatically vindicated yesterday afternoon with the news that there appeared to have been community transmission of the virus to three members of a Papatoetoe family.
Consequently, Auckland is now in an Alert Level Three lockdown until midnight on Wednesday though there is a slim prospect it might be lifted earlier.
The outbreak is an unwelcome warning that New Zealand cannot afford to become too complacent and self-congratulatory about Covid.
That is a message that appears to have been left after a closed-door meeting between the Prime Minister and some of her senior Ministers with top business leaders in Auckland on Friday.
Though the meeting was called to brief business on the vaccination programme — and to solicit their support for the communications programme to promote vaccinations — participants left convinced that New Zealand would not be opening its international borders until possibly well into next year.
That is plainly something business does not want to hear, and the Government is now having to balance the ongoing relative buoyancy in the economy against the possibility of a return of the virus on a big scale.
Last night’s decision to put Auckland into Alert Level Three was accompanied by its share of drama with the Prime Minister rushing back to Wellington in the late afternoon from Auckland’s “Big Gay Out”. for an emergency Cabinet meeting.
But it turned out officials had been working all afternoon on a recommendation for the Director-General of Health, Ashley Bloomfield, to put before the Prime Minister.
“I haven’t developed my advice in isolation,” he said.
“I’ve been in a number of discussions Today that included the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser, but also the National Response Leadership Team, which has convened by the chief executive of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) in the middle of the day.
“That includes the Secretary of the Treasury and other Chief Executives.
“And we go right around all these issues.
“I test my thinking with them and also take their advice and views on board in finalising my advice to cabinet.”
The Prime Minister said that once Cabinet had Bloomfield’s recommendation it turned to the practicalities.
“Our view is that the precautionary approach has served us very well to date,” she said.
“And now, given the current global environment we are in, that further reinforces, not weakens the need for that precautionary approach.
“New Zealanders will also see we don’t hesitate to rely on our contact tracing and our public health system if we believe that is justified.
“We did that recently, but in this case, the circumstances are different. So we’ve reacted.”
But any decision like the decision to place Auckland back under lockdown inevitably carries a cost.
“Of course, we don’t take that lightly either,” she said.
“And over the course of the day, we weigh up all of those things when we are having those discussions.
“But we’re also conscious of the far greater cost to the entire economy if we make the wrong call in those critical first 24, 48 hours.”
Whilst it seems big business is prepared, for the meantime anyway, to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt on her Covid strategy, small business may not be so enthusiastic.
Many small businesses will have to close for three days, and because none of the various Government forms of assistance start till the lockdown has exceeded 72 hours, they will not be eligible for any assistance if it ends on Wednesday night.
But the heart of the Government’s Covid strategy is to stop it at the border.
“New Zealanders have enjoyed more freedoms for longer periods of time than in any other country in the world,” Ardern said yesterday.
“And we have never taken for granted how special that was, the conflict raging outside our borders and new more transmissible strains of covid-19 emerging.
“We’ve had to make both continual improvements to strengthen our border while continuing to plan and prepare for managing any potential resurgence in the most effective way possible.”
However, that border strategy is now being questioned as it is beginning to be realised that Covid in one form or another may not be able to be eliminated; that it is here to stay and that what it will eventually require is management.
This week’s “Economist” raises this very question.
“Governments need to start planning for covid-19 as an endemic disease,” it says.
“Today, they treat it as an emergency that will pass.
“To see how those ways of thinking differ, consider New Zealand, which has sought to be covid-free by bolting its doors against the world.
“In this way, it has kept registered deaths down to just 25, but such a draconian policy makes no sense as a permanent defence: New Zealand is not North Korea.
“As vulnerable Kiwis are vaccinated, their country will come under growing pressure to open its borders—and hence to start to tolerate endemic covid-19 infections and deaths.”
The cost of the Auckland lockdown will be considerable.
The Simpson-Roche report last September on the management of the border estimated that even a short Level Three national lockdown incurred a billion-dollar cost.
Auckland accounts for nearly 40 per cent of the country’s GDP, so it is reasonable to assume that the cost of the next three days will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Opposition Leader Judith Collins more or less backed the Government’s actions.
“People will be anxious about this latest lockdown, but I urge everyone to stay vigilant in the fight against this virus and to follow the advice of health officials,” she said.
Interestingly she called for tougher border controls.
“New Zealand cannot afford any more lockdowns. We should be taking every precaution,” she said.
So at the moment the Government has support for its hard-borders approach but will that support be able to last into next year or will there come a point where the public mood might change because people want to travel again?
That may prove to be one of this year’s defining political questions.
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