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Prime minister Chris Hipkins announced that the remaining Covid restrictions will stay
Prime minister Chris Hipkins announced that the remaining Covid restrictions will stay

The BulletinApril 12, 2023

The edge of a knife, six months to voting day

Prime minister Chris Hipkins announced that the remaining Covid restrictions will stay
Prime minister Chris Hipkins announced that the remaining Covid restrictions will stay

Hipkins announces a hold on Covid changes and the last big reprioritisation as an election heaves into view, writes Toby Manhire in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

The end of a long weekend

There was a post-long-weekend mood in the room at the prime minister’s weekly press conference yesterday. So relaxed was Chris Hipkins that he forgot even to mention in his opening remarks the cabinet decision we were most anxious to hear: whether or not the rules on Covid isolation are changing. (They’re not, for now. More on that later.)

The languor won’t last long. Parliament has just begun its chunkiest recess, all of three weeks, before the house rises for the election at the end of August. This Friday marks six months until election day. “An event in October that I have an interest in,” was what Hipkins called it yesterday in response to a question from Thomas Manch about whether he would attend a Nato summit in July. (The PM confirmed he had been invited; more on that from Thomas for Stuff here.)

Hipkins wants to make water boring again

The next “reprioritisation” exercise is due any day, with parts of the Three Waters reforms on the block. Pattrick Smellie (BusinessDesk, paywalled) says it will centre on binning the four-entity plan in favour of 10 groupings. Co-governance, Smellie suggests, will remain, though the term will be Twinked out. In fact, “Three Waters” is up for a find/replace, too, with the reform as a whole rebranded to – stay with me here – “Affordable Water Infrastructure Improvements”, as Hipkins put it today. Why the change, given the reams of material out there under the “three waters” heading? “I think it’s a term that has become somewhat confused,” he said, with a smidge of a grin, as eyelids grew heavy.

Whatever you call it, there will be “significant changes” to the water reforms, said Hipkins. Is that it for the great reprioritisation, I asked. “The next big reprioritisation process is during the budget.” Would that see more of the existing work programme incinerated? “It will be more of a business as usual approach.”

The knife-edge

A couple of new polls popped up in recent days, from Roy Morgan and Curia for the Taxpayers’ Union. Both tend to suggest the next six months will proceed on knife edge. To get a sense of just how close it looks, below are the latest numbers from each of the published polls.

Bar graphs compiling latest published political polls of voting intention in New Zealand for April 2023
Polling snapshot, April 2023
Plenty of water – three to begin with – to go under the bridge yet, but eesh, how close is that? Averaged across the five polls, the presumptive blocs stand at National-Act on 45.8% versus Labour-Green on 45.1%. Translated into seats (and assuming Te Pāti Māori wins at least one electorate), such numbers would give the right 59 seats and the left 58, with TPM holding the balance of power: three.

Last night Hipkins confirmed he’d talked recently with the Māori Party co-leaders. “It was largely a meet-and-greet, and acknowledgment that we can work together,” he said, swiftly adding, “in this term of parliament.” Discussions hadn’t gone further than that, and there’d been no chat on anything like electorate deals. But it does suggest a warming of relations with the potential Chris-maker.

Mandatory isolation for Covid continues

“Pleasantly surprised,” said Dion O’Neale when I called to get his response on the decision to keep in place Covid rules requiring seven days isolation for those who test Covid-positive. Work by O’Neale and colleagues at Covid-19 Modelling Aotearoa had suggested that dumping mandatory isolation could bring bring an increase in hospital admissions and deaths of around 13%-25% across six months.

Hipkins said the government would look at how the “test to release” approach was working around the world over the next couple of months and review the decision. O’Neale thought such a scheme could work if properly implemented. “Rapid antigen tests are pretty darned good at measuring whether you’re infectious or not,” he said. Research suggested people around 85% of people spent some time in “excess isolation”, while around 9% exited isolation after the seven-day period while still being infectious. A rigorous approach that saw people leave isolation on a negative test at any point between five and 10 days after infection would overall be better, too, for employers facing shortages, he said.

The decision also meant “we get to see in two months’ time whether we’re in another terrible wave of infections and hospital admissions”, said O’Neale.

Kirk Hope of BusinessNZ told Newstalk ZB he was keen on a test to release scheme and disappointed that the government hadn’t yet studied the way it works overseas. The cabinet decision was criticised by the opposition, as Newshub reports. Mildly by the National Party and vehemently by Act.

Keep going!