The clear message from the Government now is that the Covid future entirely depends on the vaccination rate.
And the trade-offs such as lock-downs that have to be made will depend on that rate.
How difficult those can be was vividly on display in Melbourne yesterday as construction workers staged a series of violent protests against mask wearing in the central city.
The Prime Minister even suggested yesterday that we may be able to go without masks once we reach a high vaccination level.
But getting to the 90 per cent vaccination rate may yet be a struggle.
And National Leader Judith Collins defended the right of people to refuse vaccinations.
“I do believe that people have to have freedom of choice,” she told a media conference.
Meanwhile, Ardern remains reluctant (in public anyway) to make any promises about relaxing the border controls or the elimination strategy itself.
There was widespread media reporting and speculation yesterday that the strategy is dead.
POLITIK has been told it is being “reconsidered” by the Cabinet, but when Jacinda Ardern was asked about it yesterday by Judith Collins in Parliament, her answer was unclear.
“We continue to take a zero-tolerance approach to COVID-19, and that means stamping out, as we’ve said consistently all the way since the very beginning, cases whenever we see them arise,” she said.
“That has not changed, and we continued to commit to that yesterday.”
She said lockdowns had been required because the Government did not have other tools.
We now have vaccinations available, and we are working incredibly hard to ensure that everyone who is eligible is vaccinated,” she said.
“It is fantastic to see how close Auckland is to reaching 80 per cent of eligible Aucklanders having received their first dose.
“We have the capability to, within another two weeks, go beyond that and to reach 90 per cent.”
Ministry of Health figures yesterday showed that 39 per cent of those eligible had now been double vaccinated, and 74 per cent had received their first dose.
But Professor Shaun Hendy from the University of Auckland’s Te Punaha Matatini has been part of a team of researchers who in June concluded that New Zealand would need to reach a vaccination rate of 97 per cent to reach a population immunity threshold.
That would seem an unattainable target, and that the team’s current work is focusing on the impact of different vaccination levels.
Ardern said yesterday that Hendy and his team were continuing to refine that work, and she planned to make it public as soon as possible so the public could “see what a difference vaccination rates make.”
Hendy’s team reports twice weekly to Treasury, and their reports are submitted to Ministers.
At Parliament’s Health Select Committee two weeks ago, Hendy said that, based on his work, a target of 80 per cent vaccinated would not eliminate an outbreak.
“As you push up vaccination rates, the time for elimination starts to decrease,” he said.
“And eventually, when you reach the threshold of 90 per cent of people over 15 vaccinated, it starts to plateau off.
Hendy told the Committee he did not believe we could reach herd immunity solely by vaccination, particularly given the high rate (97%) required.
Another complicating factor was that the current vaccines could still allow people who had been vaccinated to catch Delta.
“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 now a tradeoff.”
That thinking would seem to be behind Ardern’s refusal to kill off the elimination strategy.
It can go only when the vaccination rate is high enough.
“Vaccination is important because we’ve seen the difference it’s made between those individuals who have been vaccinated versus those who haven’t,” she said.
“And there would be those who would say that even as we continue to stamp it out, vaccination will help us with that.
“ So that is as much a reason to highlight the need for the vaccine as it is the role it will play going forward in our use of restrictions.”
She put it explicitly during Question Time in Parliament.
“The higher you go, the fewer ongoing restrictions that are required on a day-to-day basis to ensure people’s safety,” she said.
ACT Leader, David Seymour, asked Ardern if the vaccination rate got to 89 per cent would we be able to start taking steps to abandon the use of lockdowns and connect with the rest of the world?.
Ardern’s reply would seem to put in question any hope that the trans-Tasman bubble might open before Christmas.
“We have plans to alter the way that we’re working at our border in the first quarter of 2022, and that includes the self-isolation pilot that we’re establishing for the latter part of this year,” she said.
Hendy told the Committee that there would be tradeoffs in opening the border.
“I terms of how we how we move to open our border, to deal with cases may be coming in more frequently because of relaxed border controls or moving away from MIQs you do need some other controls in place,” he said.
“And with those other controls, you can achieve herd immunity.
“With widespread mask use; with some forms of social distancing, with rapid testing, you could talk about herd immunity, but not solely from the vaccine.”
Tradeoffs require political judgement, and it would seem from the pressure the Prime Minister is putting on maximising the vaccination rate that she wants to minimise the kind of restrictions that Hendy says might still be needed if the rate is not high enough.
But there does appear to be light at the end of the tunnel; the international outlook is improving with 401,674 new cases on September 20. That is down from the all-time peak of 901,503 new cases on April 23.