The New Zealand government called time on its world-leading Covid-19 elimination strategy on Monday, announcing a suite of measures that grant Aucklanders greater freedom after seven weeks of community transmission, despite experts urging tighter restrictions. In doing so, the government has snookered itself in three mutually-reinforcing ways: on social license, on enforcement, and on the economy.
New Zealand’s strategy depends on social license, and people feeling like they understand and are part of the system, and can contribute to its success, knowing others will be prevented from undermining their efforts.
This has proceeded partly from prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s personal popularity and the excellence of her communications, but more from her resolve and the strong alignment of her policies with the expert consensus in favour of continued elimination. It has worked well. And social license has also been rooted in a transparent, understandable system that lets well-informed non-experts anticipate policy decisions and feel validated when they come to pass.
Two weeks ago, when the government moved from alert level four to three despite untraced community transmission, its policies began to diverge from the consensus, and on Monday the gap widened further. On Sunday, the day before the announcement, a group of experts from the University of Otago urged the government to do more to ensure the safety of vulnerable communities in Auckland. Instead, the government did less. As a result, the government’s decisions are now less comprehensible to people who have spent 18 months observing the outbreak and response. Ardern, who remains enormously popular, had fewer cheerleaders on Monday night than she did on Sunday.
The most immediate policy shift will allow Aucklanders to gather outdoors in small groups from Wednesday. This means enforcement is now essentially impossible at any scale, because when you tell a million people who have been stuck inside for two months they can go and have a drink at the beach or in a park, that is what they will do and a certain number of them will not follow the rules. Police have taken a hands off approach to enforcement of illegal gatherings, most notably refusing to break up a rally of more than 1,000 anti-lockdown protesters who gathered at the Auckland Domain on Saturday. This was wise, because provoking a confrontation could have done enormous harm to social cohesion. But if police now start arresting people for low-level breaches, they will further erode social license. The authorities have snookered themselves.
Despite all this, they have kept alert level three nominally intact. Ordinary people get more freedom but, with limited exceptions for retail and hospitality, they can’t go back to work, and the economy will continue to struggle as a result. Part of the government’s strategy has been relying on strong support among the working public countervailing against criticism from some business leaders, including former prime minister Sir John Key, who have called for an end to lockdowns. But by decreasing Covid protections without reopening, they have lost segments of both the public and business in a negative-sum decision.
The government has said it will return to the former more stringent protections if that is warranted. But there is a risk this ratchet will go only one way. What we have seen in New South Wales and Victoria, and in other jurisdictions, is severe and sometimes violent resistance to governments reimposing restrictions that people and businesses have gotten used to living without. This all gets harder as level three continues, as the government now admits it must for weeks or months.
And there’s the medical consequences of further outbreaks that experts now say are inevitable. People will get sick, stretch hospital capacity, and some will die. Experts say this is because the change did not come with additional transmission controls to balance the freedoms. There was no stronger testing regime, no stronger border around Auckland, and no immediately stronger vaccine strategy. On Tuesday, the government announced a vaccine passport system, but this will not be in place until November.
Māori public health expert Dr Rawiri Jansen, in a Facebook live presentation with the leaders of the Māori Party on Monday night, said he sees Auckland as being seven weeks behind NSW, with low but gradually escalating case numbers and untraced transmission. He observed vaccination rates among Māori in Auckland are comparable to those in Sydney at that time.
And this is where things really get hard: case numbers are already highest among Māori and Pacific peoples, and the vaccine rollout has been worst among Māori due to poor targeting. So when we say “people will get sick and die” it’s Māori and Pacific peoples we mean. That should have social license costs too.
But it’s not over. Because of elimination, New Zealand starts 18 months ahead of the world. The best part of the government messaging since Monday was that vaccination is how we get out of this. Stay kind. Get vaccinated. Remonstrate gently with your vaccine-hesitant friends and relations. Scan and trace and wear masks. I hope it’s enough.