The Covid Delta variant appears to have so spooked the Government that it is now having second thoughts about policy it announced only a fortnight ago.
On August 25, Covid response Minister Chris Hipkins said the Government was considering purpose-built Managed Isolation and Quarantine facilities. On Tuesday night in Parliament, he said it now wasn’t.
On August 26, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern outlined a “reconnection” plan for New Zealand which would allow a staged opening up of the border to people from a particular country according to its risk level.
Since it was announced, the Department of Prime Minister has been giving a Powerpoint briefing to business and other stakeholders about the plan.
Yesterday, Hipkins said that was now also likely to be off the agenda.
That is a measure of how quickly the Covid response strategy is under the hammer from the Delta variant and is now changing.
In short, all bets appear to be off.
And that means there is now no clear pathway to when even the Trans-Tasman bubble might reopen, let alone to when the border will reopen to other countries.
On August 25, Hipkins told the Health Select Committee that he was looking at options other than the current leasing of existing hotel rooms for managed Isolation and Quarantine.
“There are three other aspects we continue to explore; purpose-built facilities that are built and operated by Government, purpose-built facilities that are built and operated by someone else or potentially purchased facilities and then a greater degree of conversion work is done on them. So all of those continue to be on the table,” he said.
But on Tuesday night in Parliament, he told National MP Chris Bishop that though the Government would continue to consider a purpose-built facility, “One of the big questions is exactly how long we’re likely to be using MIQ at the scale that we are using it at the moment.
“I think it is likely that we will need quarantine facilities; whether we need isolation facilities is another debate,” he said.
He said that purpose-built facilities would take quite a long time to build.
“The Government is looking at alternatives around isolation, and that includes the ability to isolate at home, and the extent of our willingness to do that, of course, is going to depend a lot on what happens in the next few months, around vaccination and around the overall risk of COVID-19 spreading in the community,” he said.
So that raises the question of what will happen at the border.
On August 26, Ardern and Hipkins unveiled a plan which would see countries graded into low, medium or high risk. Only unvaccinated travellers and those from high-risk countries would be required to undertake 14 days in Managed Isolation.
This was supposed to start happening in the first quarter next year.
But on Tuesday night, Hipkins signalled that it was now off.
“It would be fair to say that Delta has actually changed some of the thinking about that even in the last few weeks,” he said.
“We were looking at a situation where you could stratify countries based on risk, and I think in the Delta environment, we actually have to consider whether that’s an appropriate thing to do, recognising that all countries, all people coming into the country at this point, have a degree of risk associated with them.”
He said that then played into the question of what the medium to longer-term border settings would be.
“Now, that all plays into a question mark about what our medium to longer-term border settings will be,” he said.
“We haven’t set out any new thinking on that.
“Obviously, at the moment, the focus is on responding to the current outbreak, but I think we will have to look again at some of that thinking around particularly the country-risk profiling because I think Delta has changed the game.”
And yesterday, at the daily Covid media conference, he continued his theme by warning that Delta was affecting the potential for the reinstatement of the Trans-Tasman bubble and discussions about its reopening were “a fair way away.”
“I think it does bring a degree of realism to that, to the timing around discussions around the Trans Tasman bubble,” he said.
“I’m aware that our initial indication of the length of time that we were suspending the bubble for is drawing close.
“ I think it would be unrealistic to expect that there’ll be speedy decisions in the next few weeks about reopening of the bubble.”
“Should people be preparing themselves for the border, remaining more or less closed for the next 18 to 24 months?” a reporter asked.
“No, they shouldn’t be,” he said.
“I think we have acknowledged that we do want to be able to reconnect, and we do want to provide for a greater amount of movement at the border than we’re currently able to provide for through MIQ.
“And the prime minister set out a pilot for isolating at home.
“We will be endeavouring to proceed with that pilot between now and the end of the year, which was the timetable that we set out in the reconnecting New Zealand Seminar.”
And then he seemed to suggest that there might be a way the border could open.
“We do acknowledge that the current model that we are working to, whilst it may still have an ongoing role, is unlikely to be the only route in and out of the country in the medium to longer term.”
At the heart of all this is the future of the elimination strategy, which Hipkins is happy to talk about, but the Prime Minister seems to resist any suggestion that it is up for grabs. She calls it our “number one strategy” and says it cannot be put at risk.
Hipkins told Parliament on Tuesday night that the thinking was changing and evolving,
“I think that there are some things that we should put on the table and be upfront about,” he said.
“The first of which is: do we think it’s viable for a prolonged period of time to continue to restrict movement at the border to the sort of 4,500 rooms worth of people in any given fortnight?
“I think the reality is it is not going to be viable to sustain that beyond the sort of immediate global response phase of COVID-19.
“So we are going to have to think about alternatives to that; things like self-isolation are part of the question.
“Things like the elimination strategy itself and how the elimination strategy evolves, first of all in New Zealand that has a high rate of vaccination, which of course is what we’re all pitching towards, but also in a world that will increasingly become more highly vaccinated over the next year, 18 months to two years.”
New Zealand is now only one of a few countries (China is another) continuing to pursue an elimination strategy.
That may mean eventually learning to live with Covid.
A recent McKinsey report suggests that because of Delta, herd immunity (the basis of the elimination strategy) may now be out of reach.
The Delta variant has effectively moved overall herd immunity out of reach in most countries for the time being,” the report said.
University of Auckland Physics Professor and covid modeller Sean Hendy, appearing before the Health Committee yesterday, said the same thing as McKinsey.
“It does look extremely unlikely that you’ll achieve population immunity against Delta with the current vaccines we have,” he said.
“And so that means everything’s a trade-off now.
“So if you make a decision about your border setting’s that has a direct impact on community risk.”
Hendy said his Punaha Matatini research centre was working on developing a medium-term model which would demonstrate the trade-offs between opening the border to a specific country, and the likely Covid impact, particularly the likelihood of any change in alert levels.
But another modeller and Government advisor, economist Rodney Jones, said he believed the country should continue with the elimination strategy.
“We were the first country to pursue elimination and, you know, in the 30s, we were the first to create a welfare state,” he said.
“We have to be the ones to do this.
“I don’t think there’s any examples we can actually look at.
“This is very specific to us.
“In a way, we have to create the model.”
Jones said that research in Auckland and Sydney showed the Covid spread more rapidly among lower socio-economic groups. In New Zealand, that meant South Auckland and Maori and Pasifika in particular.
But he said eliminating Covid did carry a cost.
“You pay a high economic cost as well,” he said.
“And that economic cost is real, which means we have less for health; we grow less.
“So there’s a real balancing that’s going to be more of an art form going forward because for Maori and Pasifika and with the geography, South Auckland is going to remain our front line, and so when we design our strategy, we have to explicitly take that into account.”