Saturday, November 27

Covid-19 lockdown: Ardern fights to give New Zealand certainty

By Marc Daalder * by Press room

Comment: New Zealanders may be frustrated by piecemeal extensions of Level 4 restrictions, but is the alternative much better?

27082021 PHOTO: ROBERT KITCHIN / STUFF LR: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director General of Health Dr. Ashley Bloomfield keep updating the Covid 19 post office closure to inform New Zealand of a change to level 3 on Wednesday.

Jacinda Ardern.
Photo: Pool / NZME

A week and a half after the last outbreak and New Zealand finally has a bit of certainty.

After 11 days of partial extensions, Auckland and Northland now expect to be at Level 4 until mid-September and the rest of the country is looking forward to Level 3 from Wednesday.

At least some of it was already a foregone conclusion. New Zealanders are no strangers to the concept of virus 14-day transmission cycles, which governed how the Cabinet handled alert levels in both outbreaks last year.

Already last Friday, experts were already warning that we would probably have to go through the full 14 days before anyone could feel comfortable with his resignation.

It is unclear how the South Islanders came up with that they could be an exception to this rule. But at least they’ll be happy to be certain of moving to Level 3 next week, assuming nothing worrisome comes up over the weekend.

That certainty has been scant over the course of this outbreak so far.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern understandably responded to a single Delta case by announcing a quick shutdown of three days for most of the country, and seven days on Level 4 for Auckland and Coromandel.

By the time it rolled around last Friday, Health Director General Ashley Bloomfield recommended that Auckland’s restrictions be extended for another week, along with an extension last Tuesday for the rest of the country. Ardern accepted Bloomfield’s second recommendation, but declined at the afternoon press conference to confirm that Auckland would need at least one more week at Level 4.

“Look what I would say about Auckland, and I think they’ve been on Covid long enough to know that when you’re really a hot spot, that lends itself to you often having to be more cautious, but again, we’re leading all of New Zealand to that decision on Monday, “he said.

Sure enough, on Monday, the Auckland lockdown was postponed for another week, while restrictions at all other locations were extended until Friday.

Auckland Central on the second day of closing August 2021.

Auckland Central on the second day of closing August 2021.
Photo: RNZ / Robert Smith

What ACT leader David Seymour describes as “one drip-fed spread at a time” is sure to have frustrated New Zealanders.

From a health perspective, it was understandable that Ardern would have wanted to check the restrictions from time to time to make sure they were still necessary. But again, that 14-day rule meant that almost everyone could have guessed that Level 4 was here to stay for a minimum of two weeks.

By the time the first Friday arrived, the case count was already 31 and rising, and the virus had spread to Wellington. Was there really a chance at that stage that some part of the country would fall to Level 3 after just a week of restrictions?

In the end, Bloomfield’s advice from late last week was followed. But the theatricality in the meantime was fueled by a political desire to offer hope of easing restrictions more quickly.

It is the fight that Ardern has been waging for 18 months, not wanting to politicize the pandemic, but having to grapple with the fact that these decisions are necessarily political. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that the government makes its decisions solely on the basis of health advice.

Last March, Bloomfield recommended closing the borders to everyone, including New Zealanders; fortunately, the Cabinet ignored that advice. Similarly, the Cabinet has ignored the Ministry of Health’s rejection of masking in favor of a more cautious approach.

Ardern’s calculation of the utility of the piecemeal outreach approach may have been wrong, if anecdotal frustration from businesses and everyday New Zealanders locked up is something to go through.

Perhaps feeling this, he may have now staggered too much in the other direction, signaling that Auckland may be at Level 4 for a total of four weeks. Given the unpredictability of the virus and the lack of vision about the possible scope of the outbreak, it is difficult to believe that there is much confidence in the Cabinet or the Ministry of Health about what the situation will really be like in two and a half weeks. ‘ weather.

Of course, if things go better than expected, Ardern could always announce an early finish to Level 4 in Auckland. Sure, people say they want certainty, but what they really want is to know when the lockdown will end.

I don’t imagine that many people would complain if the government disconnected Level 4 earlier than expected.

*Marc Daalder is a Wellington-based senior political reporter covering Covid-19, climate change, energy, primary industries, technology, and the far right.

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