The Prime Minister seems reluctant to admit it but yesterday was the beginning of the end of the elimination strategy as it has been interpreted so far.
She said she knew times were tough for Aucklanders during the lockdown but she said it was working.
And then she said that “no one wants to continue to use lockdowns.”
So the debate is beginning to swing now to the post lockdown world.
With Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins now openly talking about post-elimination strategies, he is getting ready to have the country learn to live with Covid.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is not quite so ready; it would seem. What is unclear is whether that reluctance is tactical, designed to encourage people to get vaccinated, or reflects her natural reluctance to countenance risk.
Twice yesterday at her post-Cabinet media conference, she endorsed the elimination strategy.
“The first thing I’m going to say is at the moment; our strategy is elimination,” she said.
“We’ve not changed up that plan.”
And at another point in the conference, there was a subtle addition: “What we have said is that while we’re in this part of our strategy, which, of course, is focused on elimination, to allow us to make sure that we are safely vaccinating our population, that is our absolute focus.”
Compare these comments with those of Hipkins last Tuesday in Parliament.
“Elimination strategies can take many different forms,” he said.
“Now, in the early part of our COVID-19 response, the best way to achieve elimination was, once we had done the first wave of elimination, to keep it out of the country in the first place.
“That is not always the response that we take with elimination strategies.
“We have elimination strategies for other infectious diseases, and we do that without necessarily needing to restrict movement at the border.
“So we can maintain, potentially, an elimination strategy without necessarily having to say to people that there’s a limit in the movement of people at the border.”
Hipkins was foreshadowing a future where Covid was regarded as an endemic disease like influenza or measles.
The Prime Minister, however, took a different tack yesterday.
She was not outlining any future beyond pushing ahead with vaccinations.
“What we’ve said is we will then listen to the experts, as we have all the way through and their advice on what the phase that we’ll move into thereafter looks like,” she said.
“But for now, the strategy is vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate.”
The Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, said that currently, we were vaccinating at a “great rate”.
His Ministry reported yesterday that from the beginning of September to Sunday, vaccinators had administered an additional 800,000 jabs — or 67,000 a day, well above the original target of 50,000 a day.
New Zealand has now even moved up the OECD “league table” of vaccinated countries from 35 to 28, ahead of Australia on 30.
Bloomfield believes that the outbreak and lockdown are behind that surge in vaccinations.
“We’ve seen through the last month of the lockdown that people have recognised the threat that Covid is in our community,” he said.
“It’s easy to forget that when we haven’t got the virus in the community.”
But he still has concerns.
“It’s very important we get to the highest rate possible and also that we vaccinate all our communities.
“It’s no good if our overall rate is high, but there are vulnerable pockets of unvaccinated people.”
The Prime Minister said there were seven suburbs in Auckland currently of interest, and that was where testing would be focussed; Mount Eden, Massey, Mangere, Favona, Papatoetoe, Otara and Manurewa.
Apart from Mt Eden and Massey, all the others are in South Auckland, ground zero for the city’s Pasifika population. These South Auckland suburbs will also be the focus of vaccination campaigns.
“The suburbs that we outlined where there has been intensive testing that is in response to these cases in particular and where they live, and where their households are,” he said.
“And you will have seen that many of them have been presenting to Middlemore Hospital.
“So that’s an indication that really in that South Auckland area is where we’re focusing the efforts around testing and contact tracing.”
The advisory group headed by Professor Sir David Skegg, which reported in June to Associate health Minister Ayesha Verrall, said the concept of a simple vaccination threshold was oversimplified because there were always differences among groups in the population in the extent to which people were at risk of encountering the virus.
“For example, Pasifika people in South Auckland often live in crowded housing, and they may attend large family gatherings and church services, where the risk of transmission during an outbreak is enhanced,” Skegg said.
“As a result, their herd immunity threshold will be higher than for the population at large.
“In other words, a greater proportion of people in that community would need to be vaccinated in order to achieve community protection.”
Ardern has made it clear that vaccination is her first — and it would seem —- all-consuming goal at present. Only when some unspecified vaccination target has been reached will she contemplate the kind of world that Hipkins is talking about.
“At the moment, our strategy is elimination,” she said.
“We’ve not changed our plans.
“We are going to continue to work alongside our experts around what the post-vaccination environment looks like.”
And that is about as far as she will go in terms o defining the post-vaccination world. But it would seem that the growing impatience with the current Auckland lockdown is making itself felt in the Beehive.
“You will have heard me say before, and I absolutely stand by it, no one wants to continue to use lockdown’s,” she said.
“And the reason we use them was because every single New Zealander was vulnerable.
“We had no form of effective treatment or preventative tool like a vaccine.
“Now we have vaccinations.
“So we have something that is able to be used to move away from things like lockdowns.
“But we need New Zealanders to take them up. That will be what makes a difference.”
Ardern has obviously accepted that the Pfizer vaccine may not prevent someone catching Covid but what it may do is reduce the severity of the disease.
“When you look around the world, the thing that’s determining whether or not you’re seeing that high rate of hospitalisations and, very sadly, loss of life is vaccination rates,” she said.
“It is the greatest tool we have been given in the Covid battle to date, and we must use it.
“That is the thing that is determining whether or not, for instance, a Covid case turns into a hospitalisation and then turns into grave illness because the majority of people who have been vaccinated are not having that experience.
“So that’s where I’d ask for people, please help us. We have this tool. We need you to use it.”
A country where most people are vaccinated and where Covid is simply a mild disease sounds very much like what Chris Hipkins is talking about. He just says it more bluntly than the Prime Minister.