Is the Government’s Covid-19 strategy any more coherent?

Roger Partridge
Insights Newsletter
17 April, 2020

A fortnight is an eternity in the bewildering Covid-19 world. Two weeks ago, this column argued for a more coherent coronavirus strategy. It pointed out that the Government’s eradicate-at-all-costs approach to the crisis focussed on only half of the wellbeing equation.

At the time, Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield had suggested the Alert Level 4 lockdown might continue indefinitely. There was, he said, no Plan B. The Initiative argued this view was untenable.

Along with taming the exponentially rising epidemiological curve, the Government must also consider the exponentially expanding economic fallout from the lockdown in the form of lost jobs and business failures.

At some point, the harm to wellbeing of Kiwis from continuing the lockdown becomes greater than the wellbeing benefit of continuing it. Indeed, that time may have already passed.

Since that column, a chorus of voices expressed alarm about the extent of the destruction wreaked upon the economy by the lockdown. It is now clear the Government shares this concern. There are now long odds to bet on the Level 4 lockdown continuing beyond next week.

But is Government’s approach to restricting business activity as the country moves out of Alert Level 4 any more coherent? Since the middle of last week, the Initiative has argued for a risk-based approach to deciding which businesses are able to operate at Alert Level 3.

The Initiative submitted to both officials and the Minister of Finance that the Health and Safety at Work Act has the necessary framework to evaluate how work of all types can be carried out safely. Relying on this principles-based approach would avoid the blunt, unprincipled and hard-to-understand limitations of the “essential/non-essential” labelling applied by the Government during Alert Level 4.

Yesterday the Prime Minister claimed that the ‘essential services’ approach was being abandoned for Alert Level 3 in favour of a "safety-based" approach. Yet by prohibiting shops other than supermarkets, dairies and garages to open, the new approach continues a significant dose of the former blunt approach. Why is the local butcher, baker or clothes shop less safe than the local dairy?

It was also disappointing that the Prime Minister did not reveal the criteria for the Government’s decisions to move away from Alert Level 4, and then from Alert Level 3 to Alert Level 2. Uncertainty is a curse for businesses and workers alike.

New Zealanders deserve better than this. Workers, firms and consumers should not be at the mercy of such disjointed decision-making. Nor should it take another two weeks to get the required transparency to make sense of the Government’s strategy.

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