OPINION PIECE: Obscured in the grinding day-to-day politics of Covid-19, there was great news this week.

It is worth writing about, because the nature of Covid has been long, grumpiness-inducing and awful for a lot of people: families have struggled, businesses are doing it extremely tough, and of course some people have got sick and tragically died. In a world of Zoom purgatory, there’s little point in asking those in Auckland how they are getting on; the answer is obvious, it’s a four-letter word.

The good news is this: come December 15, things are largely going back to normal, for most people.

There will still be some mask-wearing, and if you are not vaccinated, this new normal won’t apply to you. But that aside, the spectre of lockdowns will drastically diminish.

What New Zealand has managed to achieve to date is quite remarkable, even with the three-month lockdown in Auckland. By comparison with other countries, there has been little death, mostly freedom, and a hospital system that has coped.

So far, there have been 35 deaths of people with Covid-19 in New Zealand, including seven in this current outbreak. Overall, there have been 9290 cases in total, 6532 in this outbreak.

This is low compared with Australia, which has also managed Covid mostly well. It has had almost 195,000 cases, and more than 1922 deaths.

If you compare New Zealand’s current daily numbers with New South Wales, they are looking roughly similar, both in terms of numbers and deaths. The difference is that, since Delta, NSW has had tens of thousands of cases.

NSW has now crushed its daily numbers and deaths, first through a very long lockdown and then a high vaccination rate: some 91 per cent double-dosed for those aged 16-plus (New Zealand bases its figures on 12-plus).

What comes next is much more uncertain, but there is more good news. Of the eligible 12-plus population in New Zealand, more than 82 per cent are fully vaccinated and more than 91 per cent have had at least one dose. This is almost exactly the same numbers that Australia has nationally for the 12+ population.

New Zealand is already sitting in the middle of the OECD for vaccination rate, and driving higher.

Since the beginning of the Delta outbreak three months ago, the fully vaccinated rate has shot up from 23 per cent. There is little doubt that Delta and lockdowns sharpened the minds of many and pushed the effort along.

All of this means that, as Covid spreads south – which it is inexorably doing – the flare-ups are unlikely to turn into full-blown outbreaks. That, after all, is precisely what getting people vaccinated is supposed to achieve. That, and preventing serious illness from the virus.

The question now is how the vaccination rate affects the spread of cases and hospitalisations over summer. It could be that the case rates make the whole thing look like a bit of a non-event. If that’s the case, great. But the Government could start to cop significant heat if the health system comes under pressure.

What the Government has been battling politically is speed: has it gone too fast, or too slow?

The fundamental political problem is that no-one wants Covid in their neighbourhood, and no-one wants lockdowns, but you can’t have both. And once Delta arrived, it was pretty clear (arguably well before the Government admitted it) that Covid was not a thing that could be kept out any longer.

While there is clearly still a small group who feel that more lockdowns, or a longer level 4, would have been better, some have mistaken lockdowns for an end, rather than a means. Lockdowns only work because there is public buy-in. When that fades, as it clearly has to some degree in Auckland, so does the efficacy of lockdowns.

In some Covid commentary, there has been a basic confusion around what is politics and what is health, with a sort of inference that first the Government was doing health, but now it is doing politics. To a limited degree this is true, but not really.

In fact, it has always been political.

The unusual thing about 2020 was that the Government basically made all the right decisions, and that, among all the New Zealand experts in pandemic planning and so on, there was only really one recommended course of action. The politics aligned with the overwhelming health consensus, which made it all seem less political.

The trade-offs were always there, it was just that the health experts and those in the halls of power, in Government and Opposition, basically all agreed on which ones to make, with some difference at the margins.

Now the decisions are still broadly health-based, but the entire risk calculus has been changed by the vaccines. And so this week the announcement to change to the traffic light system, before 90 per cent of the eligible population in each district health board is vaccinated, is justified on health grounds. Limiting exposure of unvaccinated people to Covid-19 in “high-risk” settings was the clear next step after a wide regime of vaccine mandates was announced.

The mandates themselves are more interesting. They have been very hard for some, and sit uncomfortably for many, even if people understand why they have been made. It will be critical for the Government to time-limit their initial application.

So now, the conversation is about learning to live with Covid, but from a position of relative advantage, compared to most other jurisdictions around the world.

None of this is to say that the Government has done a faultless job – far from it. ICU capacity has clearly not been boosted much over the past 20 months. In particular, the Government appeared caught on the hop by Delta.

But even in its reactivity it made a couple of key moves. The big one was to strike deals with Denmark and Spain to get extra doses of the Pfizer vaccine to keep the vaccination programme running at full steam.

And there have clearly been areas where political cautions and bureaucratic reticence have met to stymie faster moves still: the border in particular. The risk of much Covid coming in via fully vaccinated returning New Zealanders is incredibly low, yet the MIQ system remains.

Covid is now here, and New Zealand appears in a good position to deal with it. In a way, the public policy challenge has now come full circle: the goal is making sure that the hospital system can cope.

This is now the only relevant question as the nation opens up. If the hospitals are fine – and hospitalisations as a proportion of cases are falling – then there is no particular policy problem. That was initially the reason behind pursuing elimination in March last year.

Covid was eventually going to circulate before becoming endemic. That time is starting now. The Government will be judged on how it unfolds from here.

November 20, 2021

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