You can just about imagine the farcical scenes unfolding in the Cabinet room.
The leader looks puzzled. “What can we give them this week?”
“Well, we can’t give them anything. There are too manycases.”
“What about walks on the beach?”
“Nah, they can do that anyway.”
“Too risky,” comes a voice from the head of the table.
“I know,” shouts the enthusiastic newcomer. “Picnics at the park.”
“Perfect,” says the leader.
It was promoted as the big reveal. The Prime Minister’s Monday afternoon press conference was finally going to share the Government’s road map out of Covid.
For someone so practised in the arts of public relations, it was an abject failure. In fact it was worse than that. It was farcical and disrespectful to New Zealanders and Aucklanders in particular.
Even the usually fawning media were unimpressed. TVNZ’s political editor put her usual adoration for the PM aside and used the words “wishy washy”.
There is a fine line between spin and deception. When we listened to the so-called “plan”, it was clear we were listening to the latter. Because what we really heard is that we don’t have a plan.
The long-winded rant from the Beehive which we have become so used to, didn’t need to take that long this time. If level 3 is level 4 with takeaways, then we Aucklanders now have level 3 with picnics and childcare.
We heard that we are not dealing with a long tail but a tentacle. What is that supposed to mean?
And then in the post-press conference comments we hear the utterance, yet again, of those words. “Everything we have done in managing this pandemic is world leading.”
World leading? Our vaccination rate is not world leading. Not even close. We were too slow in getting under way and our execution has been confused and slow. We are one of the few countries still using the hard handed approach of lockdowns to contain the virus.
That’s not world leading.
Our MIQ operation has not been world leading. We have tens of thousands of New Zealanders stranded overseas and unable to return home because of a lack of clear planning, execution and decision making. Has our border management been world leading? I don’t think so. ICU capacity increase? Ahhh … let’s not go there.
World leading? When governments borrow tens of billions of dollars in an 18-month period, you expect to see something for it. Hospitals, schools, roads and bridges come to mind. Where has the money gone? World leading?
For a country with undeniable advantages when it comes to managing a global pandemic, such as our geographic isolation, very low population density and being surrounded by oceans, I suggest that our response has been far from world leading. In fact it’s been quite inadequate.
When the Government suggested that Monday would see them reveal their pathway out of Covid, I expected targets and strategies to achieve them. Sadly, we never heard anything remotely close.
Sure, we have had very few deaths relative to elsewhere. But that can’t be the only measure. We need to look at the impacts on our economy, children who should be at school, and people who are waiting for life-saving medical procedures. We have entire industries from the tech sector to tourism in total disrepair because of a lack of clarity from the top.
So when the Government suggested that Monday would see them reveal their pathway out of Covid, I expected targets and strategies to achieve them. Sadly, we never heard anything remotely close.
When people stop believing what the Government says, there is a risk of anarchy. Right now, there are businesses back at work under level 3 that shouldn’t be, but need to be.
There are Friday night drinks happening that shouldn’t be. There are twice as many people on the roads. They can’t all be going to the supermarket. The reason these things happen is that the people no longer believe the government explanations. At first we were obedient. Now, not so much.
So what should a plan look like?
First, we need some clear vaccination targets. Remember that the 90 per cent target came from this newspaper, not the Government. And we need to hear what will happen when we hit those targets.
Imagine if we were told that when the South Island hits 85 per cent fully vaccinated, they will return to level 1. Or how about an announcement that when Auckland hits 80 per cent, the city will move to level 2 with masks required indoors and out. Immediately we can see what is required, how far we have to go, and what we can do when we get there.
Imagine a statement from Wellington allowing domestic travel to resume when the entire country is back at level 1 or 2. You get the idea — targets and outcomes.
If we achieve 90 per cent of the population being fully vaxxed, one would imagine that would bring full freedom. Freedom to travel, to host fully vaccinated tourists and to operate as close to “normal” as we can imagine. So why not say that?
We need to understand that full freedom will continue to bring Covid cases, hospitalisations and deaths. We may as well acknowledge that and plan for it. And so, as we pursue our 90 per cent target, we need to enhance our MIQ and ICU facilities (something that should have been done 12 months ago) and execute plans for monitoring people isolating at home.
Business needs dates and a list of criteria to work towards. Communicating a proper government plan out of Covid would in turn enable people and businesses to make their own plans.
Plans around recruitment, capital expenditure, marketing, and in particular, international expansion all require a level of certainty from the top to become enabled. Doing so would provide the additional benefit of assisting mental health issues.
Uncertainty brings anxiety and a clear plan goes some way to eliminating anxiety. Clarity will bring confidence back into the business community.
That business community needs to see a sliding scale from 90 per cent back to our current position at 50 per cent, perhaps in 5 per cent increments. If opening our country up is totally reliant on vaccination rates, as we are being told, let’s plan to open up progressively as rates increase.
Let’s accept that at 50 per cent we sit where we are. At 60 per cent retailers open. At 70 per cent hairdressers and gymnasiums. Our need to get Kiwis back to New Zealand is beyond urgent and provides multiple benefits in a society short of workers.
So, when we have 75 per cent of the population fully vaccinated, let’s invite fully vaccinated Kiwis, who are living overseas and who provide a negative Covid test, to return home provided they self-isolate at home for 14 days.
At 80 per cent, fully vaccinated people can travel overseas provided they self-isolate at home for seven days on their return. Let’s enable daily antigen testing as Sir Ian Taylor suggests, to manage the process closely.
And we don’t need to kick off each stage with pilot programmes for small sectors of the country. This stuff is already being done overseas. We don’t need our own little test to see if it works. We do need to get on with it.
Each 10 per cent goal can have a two-week execution target. So if we’re at 50 per cent today, the country goal becomes 60 per cent in two weeks. At 80 per cent, unlimited domestic travel can occur for the fully vaccinated. At 90 per cent we’re fully open. Of course, overseas tourists will need to be fully vaccinated.
We also need to turn our attention to the small to medium-sized privately owned businesses who are our biggest employer. At 70 per cent vaccinated we need everyone back at work.
While we’re at it, let’s make a plan for our schools. We need to get our schools open, permanently. The best thing we can do for the long term good of the country is to get our kids back to school and have them knowing that we will not disrupt their education ever again. The education of all children should be a much larger priority than it currently is.
I understand that up to 40 per cent of kids in decile one high schools are permanently absent. This is one of the biggest factors we have to turn around if we are to become a knowledge economy once more. If everyone needs to wear PPE all day, so be it. An educated nation is critical. Make it someone’s job, make a plan, and get the schools open quickly and permanently.
At the same time we need to develop strategies for tertiary education, international students, international tourism, revitalising the building and construction sector, the return of migrant workers, and easing the congestion and costs at our ports.
In the meantime, we need to go as fast as we can to upgrade the MIQ and ICU infrastructures to enable us to cope with the inevitable increase in Covid cases that will occur with open borders. Yes, it is amazing that this hasn’t happened yet, but that’s no reason not to do it now.
I would like to think that our country is up for an approach like this. I think we are. I also believe that the Government needs help to pull it off. Equally, I know that there are plenty of capable people willing to put their hands up.
Sadly, I don’t think that help will be called upon. In fact, if there was a turning point in this election cycle, I think it happened on Monday.
This article first appeared in the New Zealand Herald on Saturday 9 October 2021.