Professor Sir David Skegg raised the 64-thousand-dollar (or perhaps 64 billion-dollar) question in his testimony before Parliament’s Epidemic Response Committee this week. He asked whether the government had a clear the strategic objective for its unprecedented level-four lockdown.
Since the subtitle of Alert Level 4 is “Eliminate”, Sir David’s question might seem unfair. And Director General of Health, Dr Ashly Bloomfield, quickly clarified to media that elimination is indeed the goal.
But if elimination is the objective, it is troubling that Minister of Health David Clark referred to a goal of reducing the epidemic’s effect to successive “waves” of infection in his testimony before the Committee. There will be no waves of infection if elimination is successful.
Lack of consistency in messaging about the Government’s strategic objective is worrying. But there is a more fundamental concern with the elimination objective: the absence of a clear timeframe. Of course, we can eliminate the disease. If the four-week lockdown does not work, the government simply forces us into lockdown for longer. But at what cost?
A cost-benefit assessment sounds heartless when the goal of the lockdown policy is to save lives. But the country-wide pause has already triggered a domino-effect of business failures and job losses. Just as the coronavirus spreads exponentially, so does harm from the lockdown. For firms and workers, each day of lockdown causes more business failures and job losses.
These economic effects have health and wellbeing implications too. And at some point, the harm to the wellbeing of Kiwis from the lockdown may become greater than the benefit to the wellbeing of New Zealanders from continuing with it.
Most estimates show unemployment soon running into double figures. Overseas estimates suggest if Governments are not careful unemployment could exceed 20% or even 30% – levels not seen since the Great Depression.
The hardship caused to hundreds of thousands of Kiwi families from widespread unemployment, the evaporation of job opportunities for the new generation of school leavers and the losses to the productive side of the economy which funds our social services and most of the population’s livelihoods, must all be factored into the Government’s strategic choices.
Until it addresses this complicated equation, the Government’s Covid-19 strategy is at best only half complete. A well-informed strategy must consider both curves – the epidemiological curve and the economic curve.
In the meantime, Professor Skegg had some clear advice for the Government on the areas it must lift its game to give us the best chance of achieving the goal of elimination. The Government must fix the shortcomings with Covid-19 testing. It must enforce strict quarantining at the border. And it must improve contact tracing.
If the Government gets these tactics right, perhaps it can sidestep the bigger strategic decision. But it is fast bearing down on us.
In the meantime, the Government must be more transparent with New Zealanders on the difficult strategic choices the country is facing. If it isn’t, we risk drifting in a direction that may do more harm than good.