Anyone who carefully read the advice from the Skegg advisory panel, released barely a fortnight ago, should know that far from being some kind of knee jerk reaction to delta’s arrival, the lockdown we see now IS the plan.
To quote the committee’s July 27 advice to the government: “New Zealand is liable to experience an outbreak similar to that in New South Wales in coming months – although presumably we would go into lockdown more quickly.”
That was because “the delta variant can replicate faster and be more infectious during the early stages of infection”.
That exactly describes what has happened.
As of Sunday’s 1pm update, 72 cases of covid-19 had been identified, an increase of 21 from Saturday – itself not as large a spike as might have been expected from Friday, given the scale of testing currently occurring across the country.
It is far too early to declare victory by the use of a short, sharp lockdown. But it is not too early to hope that this approach is working. This is what ‘elimination’ means in the context of covid-19: using heavy measures to stamp out the occasional flare-up.
So far, this is not a NSW-style outbreak, where half-measures allowed delta to take hold, so that the Australian state once deemed to be doing best at covid control looks close to hauling down the flag and “just living with it”.
This is what the UK has done, creating a dangerous experiment that could yet make the UK a breeding ground for the next high-impact variant after delta. But the decision to “just live with it” is as much an admission of political failure as it is of a failed public health approach.
Yet in parts of the commentariat, quite apart from social media where no one can be assumed to know anything, there is a chorus of complaint about this latest lockdown.
Much of this criticism is irrelevant.
We should have vaccinated more and earlier. True. But how does that analysis help the current situation or change the response?
We should have had more intensive care beds by now. True. That we don’t is inexplicable. But that lack makes a hard lockdown all the more important.
We should have had saliva testing by now. True. The fact that we don’t is damn near a scandal and such a serious miscue that by the end of the week, it would be surprising not to see movement on this issue.
The border should be less porous. We should be letting butchers and greengrocers open. We can’t live like this forever.
True. Probably. True.
The daily press conferences keep us in suspense for too long while trumpeting the “good news” that vaccination progress is improving from its stumbling start.
But so what?
None of these critiques is remotely relevant to what we do now and none assumes, as some seem to believe, that Fortress NZ is a permanent state of being.
A roadmap does not equal speed
Well, guess what.
That’s what the Skegg advice says too.
Here’s what the committee says: “If it became clear over the next few years that the costs of elimination outweighed the benefits, it would be a simple matter to follow the example of other countries”, accept the covid-19 virus as endemic and incapable of being contained.
The Reserve Bank governor, Adrian Orr noted in the Sunday Star-Times that covid started as a pandemic and had now become endemic globally – “meaning it is going to be around for a long time”.
He is right.
But New Zealand is not there yet.
Rather, as the Skegg report points out: “An important advantage of maintaining our New Zealand-type elimination strategy is that it keeps our options open.
“If this policy were to be abandoned now, so that endemic infection became established, it would probably never be possible to reverse the change.”
Since the benefits of keeping covid-19 at bay are clearly still outweighing the negatives, it is clearly too early to abandon the elimination strategy.
It is also too early because not everyone who wants to be vaccinated has had the opportunity to do so.
“Citizens could justifiably feel aggrieved if they were exposed to this infection before being given the opportunity to be protected by vaccination,” the Skegg group pointed out.
However, by the end of the year, everyone who wants to be jabbed and is over the age of 12, will have as much protection as possible.
At that point, says Skegg, a careful opening up of international travel could begin.
In other words, morally, politically, scientifically and logically, the very first time the government can think about relaxing border restrictions again is in January next year.
That is: in four months time.
That is: not very long to wait.
Most New Zealanders seem to get this, which may explain why there is very little complaint about the level 4 lockdown and apparently high levels of compliance.
A chance to beat the Aussies is also possibly helping. There are few stronger motivations for a Kiwi audience than cringing defiance in relation to our western neighbours.
So far, the evidence points tentatively to success, although there’s nothing to say there won’t be more scares, more frequently, from here on in.
However, we are where we are.
Seventeen months into a global pandemic, day-to-day life for most New Zealanders has been affected far less than in almost every other country in the world.
It has not been easy. It has partly been achieved by the issuance of $62.5 billion of public debt, magicked up on the Crown balance sheet by dint of NZ being a fiat currency issuer, and a firehose of monetary policy stimulus.
Almost every recessionary prediction made at the beginning of this journey – on growth rates, unemployment, crashing house prices, deflation, government deficits, share prices – has been not just wrong, but the opposite has occurred. The only clear casualties are tourism operators catering only to international tourists.
No herd immunity is OK
One final point about this roadmap: Skegg is very clear that because children can’t be vaccinated and a proportion of the adult population will choose not to be, there is no prospect of herd immunity being reached in NZ.
In other words, we are – one day – going to have to ‘learn to live with it’.
There is no argument about that.
The question is when.
The answer is “not now”.