Judith Collins at a press conference in August 2021. (Mark Mitchell-Pool/Getty Images)
Judith Collins at a press conference in August 2021. (Mark Mitchell-Pool/Getty Images)

The BulletinSeptember 30, 2021

National releases its pandemic plan

Judith Collins at a press conference in August 2021. (Mark Mitchell-Pool/Getty Images)
Judith Collins at a press conference in August 2021. (Mark Mitchell-Pool/Getty Images)

The detailed proposal opens the way for a deeper debate about how New Zealand deals with the future of Covid-19, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.

An opposition plan for opening up New Zealand. National has released a comprehensive programme for how it thinks the country should respond to the Covid-19 pandemic over the coming 12 months. At its core, the plan moves New Zealand away from the elimination strategy to one of “vigorous suppression”. Alice Neville has written an explainer of National’s package for The Spinoff.

Some more details. The party has called for a crash programme to get the country vaccinated, with more use of a focus on using schools and GPs. It would also implement rapid testing rapidly, something the government’s own Roche report called for a year ago. The Covid response would be moved out of Wellington to a new agency called Te Korowai Kōkiri in Manukau. Finally, it wants the country to build a dedicated managed-isolation facility by early next year. The timeline is heroic but National’s Covid-19 spokesman says it’s worth a try. There’s more, it’s a 58-page document that doesn’t lack for ideas.

Overall, it largely mirrors much of the Labour government’s own plan, although with firmer targets in some cases. Those specifics are open to debate. Without access to the machinery of the public service, with its advisors and number crunchers, the opposition plan lacks proper modelling—something the government has already pointed out. Try this quiz from Toby Manhire to see if you can tell the plans apart.

Why would we do all of this? The delta variant is in New Zealand and after over a month of lockdown, it’s still spreading through the country’s largest city. While there’s an all-of-parliament push to vaccinate the country (which is a nice bit of cross-partisan cooperation) there’s no agreement on what comes next. National’s plan is about staking out a position in that debate. As Stuff reports, the party wants vaccinated travellers coming from low-risk countries to be able to skip managed-isolation once more than 85% of the population is vaccinated. Those coming from medium-risk countries would be able to isolate at home for seven days. The government has floated a similar idea, but it hasn’t provided a vaccination target or timeline. The prime minister has indicated some easing of border restrictions is possible next year, probably at the end of a “classic Kiwi summer”.

A future with Covid-19 requires investment in the country’s hospitals. As RNZ notes, National’s plan also calls for a concerted effort to strengthen hospitals and ICUs. Nationwide capacity has barely increased in New Zealand since the start of the pandemic. National’s plan follows a similar, but far less detailed, piece of work released by Act earlier this week. According to Stuff, the competing plans now mean the country can engage in a debate about what way to go. One element of that debate, reflected in the focus on ICUs, will be how many could die or be hospitalised from reopening the border even at high vaccination levels. All opening plans, even the one being advanced by Jacinda Ardern, create an additional risk of lost lives.

On day one it turned into an argument around Christmas. National says it wants to focus on vaccines and reopen the border for fully vaccinated residents coming from low and medium-risk countries by Christmas. Chris Bishop, the party’s Covid-19 spokesperson, called the current system for allocating limited spaces in managed isolation a “lottery of human misery”. The government has said the timeline is too aggressive but hasn’t offered an alternative. Instead, deputy prime minister Grant Robertson responded to the plan with a new Christmas carol in the house: “On the first day of Christmas, National gave to me…Covid.” A similar line had been tried out earlier in the afternoon by Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins, only minutes after revealing 45 new community cases in Auckland. My sense is that a glib take probably wasn’t what the country was looking for. The government’s Covid-19 response, while successful so far, was thrown together in a hurry, under enormous pressure. Some parts of it are in need of attention. The opposition, which of late has been making headlines for ill-discipline and an inability to focus on what’s important, has put in the effort to put forward a reasonable proposal and a serious debate seems warranted.

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