Covid Delta outbreak: An end to New Zealand exceptionalism

Roger Partridge
NZ Herald
13 October, 2021

If Auckland takes the full eight weeks to work its way through the Government’s “three-step plan” for Alert Level 3, 1.6 million Kiwis will have endured one of the world’s most stringent lockdowns for more than half a year.

Seven-and-a-half weeks at Levels 3 and 4 in March and April last year. Further periods at Level 3 in August 2020 and then again in February and March this year. And then Levels 3 and 4 since 18 August. Twenty weeks so far, with no end in sight.

With nearly a third of the country’s population subject to ongoing lockdowns when most of the OECD has been freed, it is getting harder and harder to claim New Zealand’s Covid response has been exceptional.

Two Governments decisions – or, rather, indecisions – bear most of the blame. First, the lack of urgency with the vaccine rollout. Secondly, the failure to bolster our healthcare system. Though less has been written about the health system’s failings than the slow vaccine rollout, it is almost as critical to the country’s current predicament.

New Zealand entered the pandemic with only a third of the OECD-average number of intensive care beds per capita. Unlike other countries, the Government has done nothing over the last 18 months to increase ICU capacity. In contrast, since the onset of the pandemic, New South Wales has increased ICU capacity from about 600 beds to 1550.

Had better decisions been taken last year in these two areas, New Zealanders might now be enjoying the freedoms of countries like Denmark. In August, the centre-left Danish Government announced the lifting of all Covid restrictions, with the health ministry declaring high vaccination rates meant that Covid-19 was “no longer a critical threat to society.” If only.

Two bouquets

Yet, two Government decisions this week deserve acknowledgement. First, Sunday’s announcement that Pharmac has secured 60,000 courses of Merck & Co’s antiviral pill, Molnupiravir, is excellent news. In stage three clinical trials, the drug halved the risk of hospitalisation or death when given to high-risk people shortly after infection with Covid-19.

Over the last few weeks, Merck has announced deals to supply the treatment to Singapore and Australia – and that it is negotiating with other countries, including Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Sunday’s press release from Pharmac suggests that New Zealanders really will be at the front of the queue this time.

And a good thing, too. Securing new treatments like Molnupiravir may be the difference between life and death for those at the mercy of New Zealand’s fragile public health system. We can only hope Pharmac has further success with other new treatments.

The second bouquet is for the Government’s decision yesterday to impose vaccine mandates for health and education workers.

During a pandemic, the case for requiring workers in these sectors to be vaccinated is obvious. Indeed, vaccine mandates for healthcare workers are already in place in most states in Australia and many countries around the world.

Workers in the health sector in New Zealand have had months to be vaccinated. The education sector may have had less time, but the need for teachers to be vaccinated is just as great – especially when those under 12 cannot protect themselves.

With both these groups, it is high time for those stubbornly refusing to take steps to protect themselves and others from the virus to get jabbed or seek employment in another sector. Fortunately, evidence from both Australia and the US suggests the vast majority will do the former.

The only question mark over the Government’s announcement – and it is a significant one – is the mixed message the 1 January 2022 vaccination deadline provides for teachers. Twelve weeks’ notice hardly smacks of urgency.

More needed

That issue aside, yesterday’s announcements are encouraging. But there is much more the Government must do if the country is to navigate this next phase of the Covid journey successfully.

A broader role for vaccine mandates and vaccine passports must be at the top of the list. Urgent law changes are needed to enable firms outside the health and education sectors to decide whether to let the unvaccinated onto their premises. As I have written elsewhere, vaccine mandates (for staff) and vaccine passports (for customers) are among the few tools available to firms to comply with their health and safety obligations.

For most firms, implementing these requirements is a legal minefield. It should not be. And there are encouraging signs the Government understands law changes are required to clear the way. Changing the law will not simply keep the unvaccinated away from the workplace. Giving firms the freedom to implement vaccine passports and vaccine mandates will incentivise the holdouts to get vaccinated.   

Beyond the workplace, vaccine passports at Auckland’s borders with the rest of the country are also an obvious next step – both to restrict the transmission of the virus across the border and to incentivise vaccine uptake.

Testing must also improve. The Ministry of Health’s rollout of PCR saliva testing has been glacial. Recognising its shortcomings, the Ministry is now seeking powers to commandeer the services of New Zealand’s leading private provider, Rako Science. The powers proposed in the new Covid-19 Public Health Response Amendment Bill are as ill-conceived as they are outrageous. They will have a chilling effect on private innovation and investment in testing when the Government should be encouraging this. The Government should instruct the Ministry to work with the private sector, not against it.

The Ministry of Health’s longstanding opposition to rapid antigen testing has also been under sustained attack. And rightly so. Rapid antigen testing is a critical part of the Covid surveillance toolbox elsewhere in the world. The same must happen here.

Last week Australia’s peak vaccine advisory group gave the green light for a third “booster” dose of the vaccine for half a million Australians. The shots will commence next Monday. A decision on booster shots for the rest of the Australian population is expected before the end of the month. New Zealanders are yet to hear from the Ministry of Health on third doses. It is time we did – especially when critical border and health workers were vaccinated seven or eight months ago.

Pressures at New Zealand’s international border will soon take care of themselves. On New Zealand’s current trajectory, double vaccinated arrivals, tested before setting off on their journeys, will pose no more risk than people exiting a local shopping mall. For those Kiwis trapped offshore – or those here cut off from their families overseas – that time cannot come quickly enough. Nevertheless, to guard against the risk of a more dangerous strain than Delta, the Government must urgently construct purpose-built MIQ facilities outside Auckland’s CBD.

The pressure to get children back to school in Auckland, the Waikato and Northland is acute. So is the need to relax the stranglehold that Alert Level 3 has on the retail, hospitality and personal services sectors.

The pressure is also high for Aucklanders generally.  The social, mental and economic effects of cooping up nearly a third of the country’s population for this long cannot be overestimated.

To address these pressures, the Government must set some objective targets and deadlines: targets for vaccination levels and deadlines for freedom.

Other countries have done just this.  If the latest lockdown has taught the Government anything, it is that New Zealand should be no exception.  


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