With the pandemic poised to start winding down, the government still needs to grapple with some significant obstacles, writes Pattrick Smellie for BusinessDesk.
In the last fortnight, life after Covid-19 has started to become visible. With the notable exception of Europe, where a third wave of infection appears to taking hold while governments dither over the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine, inoculations are starting to roll out at pace.
For the Ardern government, this has created some serious challenges. A vaccinated world is one where New Zealand’s Covid-19 elimination strategy is no longer a source of national strength or economic advantage. It should, in fact, become irrelevant beyond branding messages relating to safety and competence.
However, a large part of the strategy’s success has been its monolithic nature. Elimination has been an all-or-nothing approach that has worked while the virus was winning. The challenge now is to start adjusting to a more nuanced response in which other countries start to reopen by virtue of vaccines rather than elimination.
For monolithic government agencies, particularly traditional foot-draggers like the Ministry of Health and Immigration New Zealand, the switch to a less clear-cut approach is a challenge. For the government, which relies on those agencies for advice and execution, the line between the high level of public acceptance for elimination and the growing sense that its time is passing will be complex to navigate.
It may be particularly difficult for ministers for whom the endless bleats from one business group to “open up now” have become like the sound of the sea over the year since border closures were imposed. It took political courage to stare down those calls. It takes political wisdom to hear and respond appropriately to them now.
This dynamic is most clearly playing out over the trans-Tasman travel bubble. Just the week before last, the government was still engaging in tit-for-tat exchanges with Canberra about whose fault it really was that the bubble had proven impossible to negotiate. Even as recently as last Monday’s post-cabinet press conference, Jacinda Ardern was still caught in a jumble of waffle about where things stood on the long, slow dance to allow quarantine-free travel to Australia.
But things were suddenly moving. By Tuesday evening, rumours of a trans-Tasman bubble as early as April 15 were sweeping the Beehive. By week’s end, while Ardern remained most cautious on the topic, her Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins was clearly itching to let the cat out of the bag.
The government would have “a lot more to say” about the bubble this week. Airports and airlines reported a sudden burst of activity from the range of government agencies that have to coordinate any such opening. By last Thursday evening in Auckland, Ardern was urging senior executives at a BusinessNZ dinner to become vaccination centres and to “pick up the phone” to ministers.
This may have stuck in a few executive craws. Anecdotal tales of futile attempts to engage with senior ministers over recent months are legion. This is not just the usual grizzlers, but many of the same business leaders the government willingly turned to in the early days of the pandemic, when the “team of five million” was born. There had been growing reluctance to confront the government. Auckland International Airport chair Patrick Strange’s recent effort to wrangle a handful of other major company chairs to support a call for a more transparent path out of the pandemic is a case in point.
Don’t rock the boat
Far more than the six who signed the statement were approached, but most company boards were concerned not to infuriate a cabinet that seemed to be in thrall to its own advisers, unwilling to hear external voices, and increasingly intolerant of criticism.
Yet behind the scenes, Ardern was thumping the table at the health ministry asking to know why government agencies couldn’t get Covid-19 saliva testing under way when private sector startups could, and appointing a new Brian Roche-led committee to run the rule over the bureaucracy’s Covid efforts.
The late February Auckland lockdown was also a wake-up call, its impact shown by the slump in support for Ardern in the first OneNews Colmar Brunton poll of the year. Her popularity remains high – at levels polled just before the country closed its borders, a year and two days ago. But at that level of support, she also faced a National Party that could have won the 2020 election.
The government appears to have sensed the swiftly shifting public sentiment and is now responding. For that reason, it is almost certain today will see the announcement in principle of a travel bubble with not only Australia, but also potentially the Pacific Islands. Exact dates may not emerge immediately, but Air NZ is starting to advertise new flights to main Australian cities from mid-April, last Friday unveiled a new Auckland-Hobart service underwritten by the Tasmanian government, and is ramping up its calls to furloughed crew who may soon be returning to work.
Nine months to go?
There is still a long few months to go before it will be safe to be confident the pandemic is truly receding. However, businesses seeking a solid timetable from the government might consider using their own commonsense. If New Zealand should be adequately vaccinated by the end of this year and is moving more slowly than some other major trading partners, then we are looking at another nine months to the end of this viral marathon.
The relaunch in Auckland last week of New Zealand’s pavilion at the international expo in Dubai was one such harbinger. Postponed from last year, the expo is scheduled to open in October and run until March 2022.
This will be a major marker in both New Zealand’s and the world’s move into a post-Covid environment.
How to be helpful
Between then and now, the government needs one thing more than anything from every available source of trusted authority: support for vaccination. While 70% of New Zealanders are said to be willing to be vaccinated, perhaps half of that group are hesitant, and susceptible to misinformation and fear. Unlike the rest of the world, New Zealand has not seen its hospitals and cemeteries overwhelmed by Covid-19, so the catastrophic consequences of the virus are more easily discounted against the tiny potential for harm from a vaccine.
Ardern on Friday asked businesses to be willing to make themselves into vaccination centres. They could go a step further, offering to vaccinate the extended family of their employees to accelerate the roll-out. This is perhaps the most practical single thing business owners can do to secure their own return to normality as quickly as possible.
Key to that, also, is the research that says vaccination should not be sold as self-protection, but as protecting one another. The “team of five million” needs to ride again, in what will hopefully be a final push into a Covid-free 2022. At that point, even greater challenges will loom for Ardern. The consummate crisis manager will be back to business as usual – not necessarily her strongest suit.
This article originally appeared on BusinessDesk. Their team publishes quality independent news, analysis and commentary on business, the economy and politics every day. Find out more.