Jacinda Ardern at the Beehive last week (Photo: Mark Mitchell - Pool/Getty Images)

Decision day: When will New Zealand move to alert level two?

Jacinda Ardern will announce today if and when we go down the ladder to alert level two. If anything, the decision is even pricklier this time.

Just as it did 19 days ago, cabinet meets today to decide whether, and when, to loosen the shackles. So encouraging are recent days’ Covid-19 new case numbers that it is unimaginable they would resolve to stick it out at alert level three. It is not if, but when.

The shape of alert level two was bullet pointed by the prime minister on Thursday. Since then, people across all sectors have begun preparing – psychologically as well as practically – for the resumption of something familiar. It would be politically unpalatable to now say that was being withheld for longer than a week, notwithstanding some unholy spike in new case numbers at 1pm.

You’d be forgiven for thinking level two this week was a fait accompli. On Friday an RNZ announcer said, “when we move to alert level two next week”; an Air New Zealand email to customers said the new rules meant it would be flying “to most of our domestic destinations from the back half of next week”. News reports over the weekend suggested that large parts of Auckland and Wellington had pretty much decided the clock had struck level two already.

Opposition politicians have called to move to alert level two immediately. Business New Zealand want to move down a level today. Anyone hoping that Jacinda Ardern will sweep the curtain aside to reveal level two is go immediately at her post-cabinet press conference today should prepare to be disappointed, however. She has already signalled that there will be at least 48 hours’ notice before any change kicks in.

And there is the small matter of legislation being required to enforce level two. The attorney general, David Parker, confirmed on Thursday evening that given alert level two reflects something less than a state of emergency, the existing statutory backbone – the Health Act and the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act – will no longer do the trick for enforcement. The opposition could flex its muscle and try to slow that legislation, but they’d hardly want to be seen to be a handbrake on moving out of lockdown.

But given all of that, the earliest plausible leap from three to two is Wednesday evening; in effect, Thursday. And there is a strong argument not to mess about. After all, the numbers are compelling. More than one in every 30 New Zealanders has now been tested. For more than a week we’ve seen daily new cases turn to a trickle of zeroes and ones and twos. Crucially, all have known origins – none has popped out of a part of the country thought unaffected. The total number of “active cases” in New Zealand is now only 102. The chances are at 1pm that will fall beneath 100 – meaning everyone who has Covid-19 in New Zealand can arrange to legally get together at the pub in alert level two. (A very big pub. Safely distanced. And once they’re all fully recovered.)

The Covid-19 numbers as of May 10.

Contact tracing capacity is dramatically improved. Border controls and quarantining is in place. It would be indefensible to extend the level three version of lockdown just for the hell of it. As the cabinet paper of April 15, released in the trove of dumped documents on Friday, lays out unequivocally: “We know these restrictions are causing severe economic disruption and hardship, and threaten social wellbeing as well as public acceptability of the measures if they are not seen as proportionate.”

It helpfully reminds us, too, of the gravity of all of this: “The restrictions imposed at levels three and four of the alert system involve the most significant and widespread interference with human rights in living memory.”

So, then, Thursday? I called Shaun Hendy, who has been leading the team at Te Pūnaha Matatini that has been modelling the Covid-19 spread in New Zealand and providing advice to the government.

What does the modelling tell us? “It’s a hard period to get anything very conclusive from the modelling at the moment. Once the numbers get down to what is almost noise, very small case numbers, there are a lot of different R0s that could fit the current data,” he said, referring to the reproduction number, or transmission potential of Covid-19.

“So we’re a lot less certain about how level three is working out, compared to level four. Under level four we had, unfortunately, more case numbers. But that meant we could monitor how rapidly that was coming down and it gave us a really good handle on level four. With level three there’s just a lot more uncertainty. A bad level three, where we had all gone out and partied, would only really start to show up in another week or so with rising numbers. So it’s hard for us to be really definitive.”

The reason those numbers – the impact of level three – isn’t yet conclusive in the new case numbers is down to the “the lag”. As the cabinet paper puts it: “Covid-19 is a disease with a slow fuse.” Combine an incubation of two to 10 days and the possibility that people may not get tested promptly when they develop symptoms, and it leaves open the possibility of an ugly steeple rearing up in the numbers later in the week. It’s hard to grasp, in that light, why cabinet is making a call today, rather than in a few days’ time. Sure, it’s the budget on Thursday and parliament is back in session, but that’s hardly insurmountable.

And yet, had the coronavirus been smouldering away, we’d have seen it by now, surely? Hendy again: “If there were a lot of undetected cases out there that we perhaps hadn’t caught under level four, we possibly would be starting to see those bubble out now. From our modelling perspective, we haven’t ruled out that there could still be undetected chains of transmission. That’s still quite possible. Because some people don’t get strong symptoms, it’s still possible that it’s being passed through groups of people, particularly as we’ve gone to level three and some people have extended their bubbles.”

The Te Pūnaha Matatini stochastic modelling runs the simulation a thousand times. “We’re getting 10-20% of those simulations saying, yes, we’ve got rid of all the undetected transmission and we are eliminating. But we’d still probably say from our modelling there’s a handful of undetected cases out there,” said Hendy.

“So the message is we really do need to be cautious. It is great to be seeing some zeros, but we still have to be conscious there might be some undetected cases out there. And if we do go to level two, the onus comes down to us as individuals, to keep up our physical distancing, keep up the hygiene, and if you’ve got any symptoms go get a test. And the best thing big government can do now is just make sure that contact tracing operation is ready to go should we need it.”

Pushed for his own view, Hendy said: “My gut reaction is we should go a bit longer in level three. Probably add another week. And then I think at that point we’re going to have to back our contact tracing operation and other measures.”

After the April 20 cabinet meeting, Ardern said that there had been consensus: Ministry of Health advice and ministers’ thinking was as one on when to go to level three. That seems less likely today. It is, of course, a coalition government, and the New Zealand First ministers at the table are likely to push hard for the soonest possible shift. Ardern has hinted there may be a “phased” or “graduated approach”, too – with some parts of alert level two introduced before others. That may be the compromise required to settle debate at today’s meeting: level 2.5 on Thursday and two next week. The raw politics, four months from an election, could impel Winston Peters to make a noise about that.

But a level 2.5 would be a risk: the greatest public communications decision of the government’s response to the Covid crisis – alongside the dependable metronome of the 1pm briefings – has been the crisp alert level system, a scaffolding that has allowed everyone to grasp what is required and when. If you doubt that, just look at Britain, where the messages have been hazy and haphazard, most recently overnight with the Boris Johnson government changing the mantra from “stay at home” to “stay alert”, which apparently also means “stay at home”.

For Ardern, it makes for an unenviable balancing act. The words “legitimacy” and “social licence” are peppered through the cabinet documents released last week. There’s a reference even to “buy-in”. The leaked memo from the prime minister’s office to ministers about those documents included the directive: “There’s no real need to defend. Because the public have confidence in what has been achieved and what the government is doing. Instead we can dismiss.” Notwithstanding the imperious “we can dismiss”, the point about public confidence is empirically true. But confidence is not made of stone.

A lot of people will be pissed off if alert level two is not in place by the end of the week. No, that’s too flippant: it will be the difference for some people between being employed and unemployed. But the calculation, too, is that, as with the last alert level move, a few more days can cement gains made in the pursuit of elimination. When it’s so close, why risk jeopardising it, and sending the country bouncing back up the scaffold, with all the social and economic bedlam that entails?

If Ardern can sell the message that Thursday morning was, in effect, the earliest possible option, then Monday morning doesn’t look like an outrageous extension. And it’s probably a price worth paying.



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