Matthew Hooton: Jacinda Ardern cool in the face of Covid-19

OPINION:

The Government’s management of Covid is maturing.

At the highest level, the Prime Minister’s response to this week’s community cases was her boldest and most adept yet.

When advised on Sunday that there was no clear line of transmission and therefore that this was not just another Northland-type case, there was none of the dithering of a year ago or even the mild hesitancy of August.

Instead, Jacinda Ardern gave full meaning to her “hard and early” doctrine that, until now, hasn’t quite been true to brand.

In doing so she risked hindsight suggesting she had overreacted. Sure enough, by Wednesday morning, even economist Rodney Jones, who Ardern rates highly, was musing publicly about a possible “false alarm”.

The new cases revealed a few hours later were unfortunate for the two teenagers involved, but extinguished such accusations.

They made Ardern perhaps the first head of government anywhere to gain rather than lose politically from a new Covid report — which, in the context of a pandemic, represents some sort of progress.

Beneath the Prime Minister, the Beehive and bureaucracy have become sufficiently versed in Covid leakages that they no longer disrupt all the Government’s business.

Thus, to both prime ministers’ domestic political advantage, Ardern found time to publicly blast Scott Morrison over cancelling a New Zealand-born terrorist’s Australian citizenship. The two leaders then talked to resolve their sibling scrap.

Of greatest longer-term significance was Ardern’s determination to move down the Covid levels after the signalled 72 hours, despite the new cases. In this, Ardern again took a calculated risk, not just politically, but to some extent with public health.

Her judgment, undoubtedly correct, is that there is value in the public having greater certainty and predictability about the health response in order to maintain our confidence and compliance, and so protect medium-term public health.

Improvements must be made after the Pullman Hotel fiasco, but Ardern has no intention of accepting the increasingly radical recommendations for border security from some in the epidemiology and microbiology communities.

Rightly, she is balancing their perspectives with New Zealand being a liberal democracy, economically dependent on international connectivity, and whose people have whānau and friends spread throughout the world.

Whatever pleadings Ardern receives from some corners, New Zealand will not be locked behind the border until Covid implausibly follows smallpox in being eradicated worldwide.

Instead, as the vaccine rolls out, Ardern recognises that Covid will soon become more like rotavirus, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio, hepatitis, pneumococcal disease, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, shingles and various influenzas. It will be one of those diseases that can and will kill some people each year, but which is managed through vaccination and public health monitoring.

There is nothing callous or unusual about this. We accept around 500 deaths annually from influenza as the price of an open society, without even much thinking about it.
Both before and after nationwide vaccination, there will be leakages through the border that will have to be managed the same way other life-threatening diseases are.

Notwithstanding the health authorities’ alleged new Ferrari-standard capability for chasing down clusters and the imminent adoption of saliva testing over the ideological objections of some health officials to anything developed by the private sector, that means the Prime Minister knows she may yet have to order further spells in level 3 before vaccination is complete.

Public compliance will be greater and those health measures more effective if, whenever possible, we move back down the levels on the timetable indicated and without indifference towards wider social costs. Unless there is a major setback, the Prime Minister wants Auckland to revert to level 1 on schedule this Monday night.

All turns now on the vaccination programme, starting with frontline border staff tomorrow.

The Government has known for some time that the first doses would arrive this week but kept that information secret in the interests of its under-promise and over-deliver communications plan. It has learned the hard way from KiwiBuild, house prices and child poverty.

Privately, Beehive strategists fret about the Ministry of Health and district health boards’ abilities to deliver a vaccination programme that meets public expectations.

Vaccinologists are more confident about howearly operational plans are developing, but they worry about the communications programme.

All involved might benefit from advice from the Electoral Commission. Which other government agency is more experienced at hiring local facilities and staff in every community, running advertising and direct-mail campaigns telling us all what to do and when, and getting nearly three million of the team of five million to carry out the simple task required of us by the deadline?

What level of vaccination is required to achieve population immunity is debatable. It depends on how infectious the virus is, how it mutates, the duration of immunity from exposure or vaccination, how broad the vaccine’s coverage is, and for what percentage of the population it proves ineffective.

Some worry about anti-vaxxers’ depressing uptake but that particular cancer may be less prevalentthan social media feeds suggest. Despite all the noise, over 90 per cent of New Zealand children have received all their shots by age 2.

In the UK, which also has its fair share of nutters, only one in 100 of those offered the vaccine have turned it down. Take-up by the highest-risk group, those over 70, is near universal. There is no reason to think New Zealanders are less rational than the British. Take-up will be well above the required level.

For those on the margin, social and economic pressure should do the trick. Smart employment lawyers will soon find ways to help employers get rid of workers who refuse to be vaccinated without good reason, especially those in high-risk roles or endangering their workmates.

The tiny minority who refuse to play their part will face well-deserved social opprobrium but will make little difference to community immunity. The risks from their irresponsibility will fall mainly on themselves, their very young children, their elderly whānau and friends, and those of any age they interact with who are managing existing health conditions.

Covid deniers have long claimed it is no worse than the flu. With a bit of luck, by next winter, they may turn out to be right — at least in terms of the effects on the overwhelming majority’s day-to-day life.

Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant.

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