Is the Govt's plan a road map or an impenetrable maze?

Roger Partridge
NZ Herald
26 October, 2021

Kiwis desperate for a clear path forward on border restrictions last Friday had their hopes dashed. Those living in Auckland are no closer to knowing whether they will be allowed out of New Zealand's largest city for the Christmas break. Those shut out of the country still have no idea when the managed isolation and quarantine backlog will be unblocked.

Instead of a road map, the Prime Minister's announcement has resulted in a three-dimensional maze of restrictions. Alert level lockdowns, three-stage step-downs, and "traffic lights". Could the journey ahead for those facing border restrictions be more confusing?

Beyond the complex driving instructions, one thing is clear. The country's health system is seriously ill-prepared to deal with the virus. So much so that Auckland will not move out of alert level 3 until the isthmus's three District Health Boards achieve the 90 per cent double vaccination holy grail. Consequently, Aucklanders face several more weeks in level 3 lockdown and perhaps even longer with strict border controls

Auckland’s border

With Christmas approaching, the question on many Aucklanders’ lips is, “Will we be able to travel out of the city for the summer holidays?” Whether the destination is campsites and baches around the country, or just Nana’s place in Taupo, the new roadmap presents no answer.

Even with 90 percent of eligible Aucklanders double vaccinated, the city will not face freedom. Instead, the prize will be a glaring red-light under the Government’s new “traffic light” system. While the new system’s red level will allow limited re-opening to the fully vaccinated of hospitality and retail businesses, it also provides that “regional boundary restrictions may apply.”

The rest of the country will join Auckland under the new system once every DHB in the country also achieves 90% double vaccination rates. But even then, Aucklanders may remain locked within the city’s borders.

The contrast between Auckland and the city’s Trans-Tasman cousin, Sydney, could not be more stark. Sydneysiders enjoyed “Freedom Day” on 11 October, with all internal border restrictions being lifted. Even the cautious Queensland government is sufficiently confident in its healthcare system that it announced last week the State will reopen its domestic borders once its residents are 80 percent double vaccinated.

The Prime Minister suggested at Friday morning’s briefing that Aucklanders will be able to have Christmas with their families. But her comments since the announcement are less clear cut. "We have set ourselves a goal to try and establish whether or not this will be possible, well in time for those milestones," she said. These words are hardly reassuring to a city already in its tenth week of lockdown (and the 22nd week since the onset of the pandemic).

Subsequent comments are even less encouraging.  In the media on Saturday the Prime Minister said the Government was working on vaccine certificates to enable “safe movement” across Auckland’s border at Christmas. Given the normal Christmas exodus of hundreds of thousands of Aucklanders, it is little wonder Ardern added it would be “a very large logistical exercise.” Unless the Government wants Aucklanders to spend their summer holidays queueing on the motorway at checkpoints, the notion of checking vaccine certificates at the city’s borders is fanciful.

According to Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, Auckland’s daily case numbers will double about every 10-12 days. By the end of November, the past week’s 100-or-so cases-a-day will have swelled to a few hundred. Unless the Government clearly signals a decision now, it will face an impossible choice. The choice between disappointing the holiday plans of 40% of the country’s population in Auckland or startling the other 60% with an announcement just before Christmas that it will be unleashing Aucklanders on them.

The country’s paltry ICU capacity means the only way to make this calculus tolerable is high vaccination rates. And that raises the question of incentives.

Instead of holding Aucklanders as hostages to fortune, the Government’s roadmap should have included a fixed date for dismantling Auckland’s border controls. That would incentivise the vaccine hesitant (or lazy) outside Auckland to get vaccinated.

To avoid an impossible call in a few weeks’ time, the Government should announce a fixed date now.

The date set for Cabinet to reassess the country’s current settings – 29 November – is an obvious candidate. By then, every eligible New Zealander will have had the chance to be vaccinated. And with a clear deadline for Auckland’s border to come down, Kiwis will have had every chance of getting to the 90 per cent double vaccination goal.

As an extra spur to the unvaccinated, fast-tracked legislation should be enacted to permit employers to introduce vaccine passport and vaccine mandates by the end of this week.

The other million

If Aucklanders reacted with despair to Friday’s announcement, it was even more disappointing for Kiwis trapped overseas.

From 1 November, fully vaccinated Australians will be able to return to New South Wales without quarantining. Several other Australian states have followed NSW’s lead.

The logic of this policy is undeniable. When Covid is circulating in the community, fully vaccinated arrivals who have had a negative test before embarking on their journey overseas are no more likely to have Covid than a passer-by in the street. It makes no sense singling out returning travellers for compulsory quarantine.

Yet last Friday’s announcement provided no such lifeline for New Zealand citizens and residents hoping for a solution to the MIQ bottleneck. It should have. And the Government should move urgently to address this.

The time has passed when the Government can justify depriving Kiwis of their fundamental human right to return home for fear they may bring the virus with them. In Auckland at least, Covid is already in the community, and the Government should stop kidding New Zealanders that MIQ for those returning to Auckland is serving any useful purpose.

More urgency needed

Beyond the shortcomings in the roadmap, Friday’s announcements (and a follow-up announcement on Saturday from COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins) showed a remarkable lack of urgency.

The inexplicable and inexcusable delay to the vaccine passport app (to “mid-December”!). Saturday’s extension to the deadline for health workers to get vaccinated to 1 January (Could there be a more mixed message to the vaccine hesitant?). The absence of a coherent strategy for acquiring Covid therapeutics. The lack of a legislative framework to allow businesses to impose vaccine mandates and passports. And the silence on relaxing MIQ requirements. It is as if the Government is taking the pedestrian start to the vaccine roll-out as a precedent – rather than a spur to do better.

Meanwhile, in Auckland and parts of the Waikato, medical appointments are deferred, family celebrations and bereavements are foregone, businesses are bankrupted, and livelihoods lost. And families remain separated by New Zealand’s impenetrable international border

No wonder the overwhelming emotions among Aucklanders and Kiwis trapped overseas are anger and despair. Anger that they face being locked up or locked out indefinitely. And despair that the Government is not doing enough about it.

If the Government wants to stop the wheels falling off, last Friday’s roadmap needs a new route.

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