The Prime Minister’s announcements yesterday on Covid begin the ending of its dominance of the political agenda for the past two years.
As if to mark that, the International Monetary Fund will report this morning on its annual review of the New Zealand economy. Political business is starting to get back to normal.
Even the health messages from the Beehive Theatrette began to change yesterday, with Associate Health Minister stating to talk about other challenges the health system may face this winter.
Yet in relaxing restrictions as she did yesterday, there are huge political risks for the Prime Minister in essentially abandoning her hardline Covid protectionist measures.
There is little doubt that her elimination strategy persuaded the public to regard her as their protector through 2020, which is why Labour received such a large vote at the election.
Right from the first cases, Jacinda Ardern promised to save lives.
Back in March 2020, she launched the first nationwide lockdown and imposed what she said were the most significant restrictions on New Zealanders’ movements in modern history.
“If community transmission takes off in New Zealand, the number of cases will double every five days,” she said on March 22, 2020.
“If that happens unchecked, our health system will be inundated, and tens of thousands of New Zealanders will die.
“There is no easy way to say that, but it is the reality that we have seen overseas and the possibility that we must face here together.
“We must stop that from happening, and we can.”
In fact, since then, two years later, only 184 people have died.
Ardern’s “elimination” strategy worked.
But it has come at a price, as she acknowledged yesterday: “Everyone has been safer, but everyone is also tired. Everyone is fatigued.”
She stuck by the elimination strategy, even suggesting at the Reconnecting New Zealand Forum on August 12 last year that it would be with us for another six months.
Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker endorsed that view.
“The important thing here is that we keep this option open, and the elimination approach has been fundamental to us maintaining all our options to date,” he told the Forum.
But in early October, the arrival of the lethal Delta strain changed everything.
And Baker suggested it might be time to forget about elimination.
Writing on an Otago University blog on October 2, a group of medical academics, Prof Michael Baker, Prof Sue Cringle, Assoc Prof Collin Tukuitonga, Sarah Helm, Dr Amanda Kvalsvig, Prof Nick Wilson, said the “Reconnecting New Zealand” strategy, which was based on the elimination strategy was reasonably sound but was now threatened by the Auckland Delta variant outbreak.
“Controls operating at Alert Level 4 were not able to extinguish transmission, suggesting that we need a fresh approach,” they said.
That view was confirmed by the arrival of the relatively non-lethal Omicron in December last year.
The political question is whether, given that it was being advised to abandon elimination last October, the Government could have done what it did yesterday earlier.
That was certainly the view of National’s Covid 19 spokesperson, Chris Bishop.
“The Government has finally caught up with reality, which is that Omicron has changed the game, and the tools that worked against Delta are now putting unjustified limits on people’s lives and sowing division and discrimination,” he said.
“There is very little point in vaccine passes anymore, and it’s good they’re finally being abolished.”
They end, along with scanning on April 4.
Ministry of Health figures show that the public is already voting with its mobile phones on scanning; daily numbers are down from 2.4 million in early February to 701,868 on Monday.
The decision to remove all vaccine mandates removed from April 4, except for health and disability, aged care, corrections and border workforces, will be welcomed by many employers, particularly in the construction industry, which is short of Labour.
POLITIK understands that some major construction companies have a number of outstanding legal cases against them over their enforcement of mandates.
Now the health focus will go on guarding against any new variants of Covid, but otherwise, it will be regarded as just another contagious disease.
“There are other illnesses that we live with it that we have had in our lives for long periods of time that you build protections around and you build systems to make sure that life resumes But you still treat that illness with seriousness,” said Ardern yesterday.
“And there’s a range where we do have to continue to be on guard. Measles, as an example, is highly contagious, you know, very, very problematic for vulnerable individuals. We actually use contact tracing for measles. Most people don’t know that.
“We have vaccines that are highly effective. So there’s an example of an illness that is highly present, but that we have a range of tools that we know how to manage them in the long term.”
That range of tools will be enlarged by some of the techniques developed to manage Covid.
And Associate Health Minister, Ayesha Verrall, warned they might be needed as we head into winter this year with open borders and, therefore, the risk of exposure to incoming diseases.
“I think there is a concern about winter in particular, and the other viruses that will be circulating, particularly with open borders, would include influenza, you know, potentially from time to time. We have pertussis (whooping cough) outbreaks, RSV that has caused trouble recently,” she said.
“What we need to do is give consideration to that sort of multi pathogen approach because if you have an influenza-like symptom, you won’t be able to distinguish that from Covid, and that will cause, in some ways, the same amount of disruption that Covid would cause in terms of workplaces and so on.
“So I think some of the measures that we’ve already adopted, like, for example, masks, will be set for multiple purposes in terms of infectious diseases, and we need to look at that across our approach.”
So it will be a new normal with some echoes of the past two years and the elimination strategy possibly appearing from time to time.
And with that will come a more broad-based political debate.